PORTLAND, Maine — After nearly 55 years of public service at all levels of government in Maine, Sawin Millett has some advice: the state shouldn’t spend money it doesn’t have.
“I don’t think a lot of legislators connect … when you borrow money, you do have an obligation to pay it back,” Millett told a luncheon audience hosted Thursday by the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center. “We get entrenched in Augusta often with our roles, whether it be executive branch or legislative branch, and fail to understand the impact of what we do, and even the impact of what we sometimes say.”
Millett recently retired as commissioner of the Department of Administration and Financial Services, a post he filled since 2011, when he became a key member of Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s Cabinet.
A former legislator, Millett also worked in the administration of former Gov. John McKernan, Maine’s last Republican governor before LePage. He served in the administrations of independent governors Angus King and James Longley, and he also served briefly in the administration of Democratic Gov. Joseph Brennan in 1979.
On Thursday, he shared his “lessons learned” from a career in government.
“I’ve been around Augusta for more years than I’d like to count and I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two,” said Millett.
Millett explained that in his earlier days as a legislator, there were two budgets. One paid for the current services budget and a second funded new new and expanded services if the state had enough money for them.
“The idea here is that you fit it [the budget] within the ability to pay and that you do not spend more than your means will allow,” he said. “We had to take current services and back down with cuts [in the 1990s] and that was because revenues were evaporating dramatically.”
That sound fiscal practice changed, according to Millett, during the administration of Democrat John Baldacci, the one governor since the 1970s who did not employ the Waterford resident.
“There was an attempt to borrow our way into a balanced budget in 2005 … to spend $447 million that we didn’t have by borrowing it and leveraging it to be paid back in revenues over the future,” said Millett.
After opponents — including prominent Republicans Peter Mills and David Emery — used the rallying cry of “Don’t Mortgage ME” to begin collecting signatures for a people’s veto of the state budget, the Democrat-led Legislature stripped the borrowing plan from the two-year budget it passed.
Millett also denounced attempts under Baldacci to trade future revenue streams, such as income projections from the Maine lottery and liquor taxes, for up-front cash.
“Whenever you hear the phrase ‘potential future costs,’ cringe, because that is code for ‘you’re going to pay for this down the road,’” he said. “Budget strategies to improve the quality of life should be focused on the next generation, not on the next budget or the next election. Don’t just patch together something today that will get you through the next election, because you know that invites making some stupid decisions and putting the costs in someone else’s lap.”
Focusing on the future is something he believes LePage has done well with income tax cuts and other reforms passed in 2011, while Republicans controlled the Legislature. Millett says the cuts cost the state $400 million in lost revenue, but that state government saved more than that amount in structural budget reduction.
“If anybody tells you that that was a gimmick or a wild scheme on the part of our governor … I have a sheet I can show you that shows we have actually saved $69 million more in ongoing structural savings in this two-year period than the whole cost of that reform package in 2011,” said Millett.
According to Millett, Maine individual income taxpayers will keep in their pockets more than $170 million that they otherwise would be sending to Augusta.
Millett ended his presentation by saying he enjoys opportunities to speak to the public and interest groups about their concerns and questions, and that keeping an educational conversation going is the best way to figure out how the state can work most efficiently.
“I don’t have all the answers, none of us do, but if we’re willing to at least communicate I think we’ll be OK,” said Millett.