Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Taking a good look at candidate Peter Mills
by Joseph R. Reisert - May 26, 2006 - Maine Blethen Newspapers

One of the nice things about primary election campaigns is that the candidates tend to spend less time attacking one another and more time telling the voters about themselves and about their plans for the future.

Listening to the candidates at this point in the election helps me remember, during the unpleasantness that always seems to attend general elections these days, that our leading politicians here in Maine are remarkable, decent, and hard working people whose devotion to public service we should all honor and appreciate -- even as we, inevitably, vote for some of them and against others.

To promote a greater understanding of the three Republicans competing for their party's gubernatorial nomination, I am devoting a series of columns to the three candidates, whom I was fortunate to meet at a public forum earlier this month in Waterville. In this week's column, the second of the three, I offer my thoughts about Peter Mills.

Peter Mills stands out for me as the candidate with the most energy, intensity and knowledge about the workings of state and local government here in Maine. He has a clear perception of the challenges facing Maine, a 12 point plan for confronting them, and he is eager to get to work on implementing them.

A native Mainer like his Republican rivals, Mills has already amassed an impressive record of service to his state and to the nation. After graduating from Harvard College and serving five years as an officer in the Navy, Mills returned to attend Maine Law School and has worked since 1973 as an attorney in Maine. For the last 23 years, he has owned the law firm of Wright and Mills in Skowhegan.

Currently representing the greater Skowhegan area of Somerset County in the State Senate, Mills has the most experience of the three Republican candidates in state government. He has served for a total of 12 years in the state Legislature. He served eight years in the state Senate, until term limits forced his departure from that body; after a single two-year term in the Maine House of Representatives, he returned to the Senate in 2004.

According to Mills, Maine currently faces three principal difficulties, which conspire to make government expensive and drive up our taxes: The state has too much debt; we have too many aging bridges and highways, and with the highest median age of any state, we have a population unusually dependent on state services.

None of these constraints can be wished away overnight: We cannot default on our financial obligations; we cannot waive a magic wand and make our public infrastructure get newer; and we cannot quickly change the demographic profile of Maine.

What can be done, and what Mills proposes to do, is to maximize the efficiency and accountability of state government, so that we accomplish the most results with a minimum of resources.

Far more pointedly than his rivals, Mills criticizes Governor Baldacci's record, arguing that the current administration has not demonstrated a record of prudent management, particularly with respect to fiscal policy and the provision of human services.

The Department of Health and Human Services takes up fully half of the state budget. If it were a business, it would be the largest business in the state -- larger, according to Mills, than Hannaford and Bath Iron Works put together. But DHHS has not had the benefit of steady leadership in recent years, and it has suffered from a string of embarrassing failures. The first of Mills's 12 steps is to improve the management of DHHS, to make it more accountable, and to make the DHHS mission to enable as many people as possible to become independent and self-sufficient.

Mills also blasts the Baldacci administration for meeting immediate financial needs by selling off the rights to the state's future liquor revenues, and he boasts of his successful opposition to a parallel plan to raise funds by selling off future lottery incomes. What seems to offend Mills in these measures is not so much the amounts of money at stake but the principle: we shouldn't borrow against the future to pay our bills today.

When he was asked questions at the Waterville forum, Mills didn't reply with Republican boilerplate; he answered with lots of facts. Although he is more openly critical of the administration than his Republican rivals, Mills did not come across as an ideologue; indeed, he speaks passionately about his ability to work with Democrats and seems intensely pragmatic.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American Constitutional Law and chair of the Department of Government at Colby College in Waterville.