When Rep. Sawin Millett takes his place at the Appropriations Committee’s horseshoe every day the state budget is up for discussion — which is most of them — he’s on familiar ground.
The Waterford Republican’s name doesn’t capture attention, or set off alarm bells, the way former House Speaker John Martin’s does [see “John Martin: Maine’s most powerful legislator looks back,” Portland Phoenix, April 5, 2023]. But for anyone doing business with the state, he’s a force to be reckoned with.
You’d never know it from his demeanor. Appropriations, with its 20-foot ceilings, is the third-largest chamber in the State House after the House and Senate, and Millett, now 85, sits quietly, his expression varying between mildly curious and poker-faced.
While Martin holds the doubtless unbreakable record of 27 legislative terms, Millett has been around nearly as long. He’s currently in his ninth term, but has shuttled between the Executive and Legislative branches like no one else.
The quiet exterior masks a steely intelligence wrapped in a down-home style. In his private hideaway off the Appropriations chamber where many of the bargains are struck, Millett talks about his ideas to renovate the legislative process, as many others, including Senate Chair Peggy Rotundo (D-Lewiston), drop by.
It’s a timely subject. The last weeks of a session are always controlled chaos. The question this year is whether it will become actual chaos.
FLOODING THE ZONE
By all accounts, lawmakers are far behind their usual pace. In the first annual session, lawmakers can file unlimited bill titles on any subject, and they’re all supposed to be voted on in committee and considered by House and Senate. That’s an unusual, possibly unique feature of Maine’s citizen legislature.
This year, the bills are piling up like cordwood, more than 2,000 so far. It may not match the all-time record of 2,258 set in 1999, but it could come close.
In 2021, 1,737 bills were introduced, and the average first-year filings for the 10 sessions before that totaled 1,660. Perhaps not coincidentally, 1,600 is the number Millett thinks that Legislature can reasonably handle.
It’s not just the quantity. Literally hundreds of bills are still stranded in committee, and hundreds more are awaiting floor votes. Bills have gone to work session without a public hearing, something that normally happens rarely, if at all.
Millett checks his notes and says the House had 46 bills on its docket for the May 23 daily session and 41 at the end — a reduction of five.
Still, even though the current special session means there’s no legal adjournment date — it had been June 16 — Millett thinks the presiding officers’ plan to finish by June 21 is reasonable. “I can see it happening, but there’s a lot of work before then,” he said.
Around the building, there’s skepticism. One legislative aide who may not have been joking quipped, “Maybe we’ll be out by August.”
There’s also the question of how committees can perform their work, and how well the final bills fulfill their purpose — and how many will have to be fixed down the road, such as the senior property tax relief program hurried through last session whose costs are already getting out of hand.
There’s evidence lawmakers are struggling. As of mid-May, the Bangor Daily News reported, the House had taken only 173 roll call votes, against 500 at this point in 2021.
Even the handy smartphone-sized legislative directory, a vital resource, has yet to appear, and no one seems to know when it will.
KNOWING THE ROPES
Millett’s first elective office was as Dixmont selectman, ousting an elderly incumbent at age 26. A teacher and school principal by training, he helped organize the Maine School Management Association, then was tapped by independent Gov. James Longley as the first Cabinet-level Education commissioner in 1975, continuing briefly under Democrat Joe Brennan. He became the first commissioner of the merged Administration and Finance departments (DAFS) for John McKernan, and, after advising the second independent governor, Angus King, on policy, became associate commissioner of the Department of Mental Health. Millett returned as DAFS commissioner for Paul LePage, serving through the first term. His legislative stints came between those administrations: two terms with Ken Curtis, four terms with John Baldacci, and three, so far, with Janet Mills.
The pattern is clear: Millett serves in Republican and independent administrations, and joins the “loyal opposition” while Democratic governors serve. When he isn’t on the Appropriations Committee, he’s testifying before it.
Now, Millett has a plan to ease the congestion. He thinks a cap on the number of bills any legislator can file is reasonable — often discussed, but so far never adopted.
One of the reasons may be that presiding officers are among the most prolific filers.
Senate President Troy Jackson, a Democrat, is the clear leader, with 68 bills to date. House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) has sponsored 49.
Republican leaders do their share. Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook) has authored 45 bills, though House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor) is an outlier, filing just 13.
Two decades ago, legislative leaders rarely filed more than 30 bills apiece — and that was for an entire two-year session.
Millett definitely practices what he preaches. His name is on just five bills, and three represent constituent requests.
“When you sponsor a bill, or co-sponsor it, you’re responsible for it,” he said. Managing dozens of bills simply isn’t possible, in his view.
“Even now, people are circulating in the chamber looking for signatures. It’s too late for that to be going on,” he said.
Bills are supposed to have no more than 10 co-sponsors. Millett would reduce that to seven. But the limits are often waived, and some bills have a majority of members sponsoring — more to make a political point than to demonstrate ownership, he thinks.
The likely result is more bills than usual carried over to the 2024 session, and hasty debates on those that are voted. Neither benefits constituents, in Millett’s view.
A LAW IN ABSTRACT
Then there is the vexed question of “concept drafts,” an innovation from the 1990s to allow lawmakers to propose a subject title only, and develop language through committee discussion early on.
Originally a handful, these drafts without texts are presented for committee hearings at an accelerating pace. By one estimate, a quarter of all bills are concept drafts, added to committee dockets already piled high with fully drafted proposals.
That’s a distinction drawn by prolific bill-filers like former Sen. Peter Mills, now Maine Turnpike Authority director. “All of my bills were fully drafted, and most of them were short,” he said.
They were often clustered around a topic to see what approach a committee might take, as with the opioid epidemic that even in 2010 was “devastating Somerset County, and doctors weren’t admitting there was a prescribing problem,” Mills said.
Millett’s fellow Appropriations Committee member, Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford), takes a more aggressive approach. He’s introduced resolves to dramatically change the joint legislative rules. One would ban concept drafts entirely. The other would end cloture — the date in December when all bill requests must be submitted, except those approved by the Legislative Council, an often arduous process.
Bennett thinks this would cut down the volume of bills. “It’s counterintuitive, I know,” he said. “But having to file everything before sessions start, and committees even meet, means a lot of unnecessary stuff goes in,” he said.
Once legislators begin to understand subjects their committees will be debating, he said, they won’t file as many bills, and those they do will be more focused.
“I’m willing to compromise,” he said. “I just want to start the debate.”
There’s a catch, though. Rules changes are funneled through a select committee, which has yet to meet this year, “and I’m not sure it met last year,” Bennett said.
Max Rush, chief of staff for President Jackson, who chairs the rules committee, said that a meeting probably will take place, but not until after the current session concludes. “There’s a lot going on, and we definitely won’t get to it until then.”
Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, columnist and reporter since 1984. His new book, “Calm Command: U.S. Chief Justice Melville Fuller in His Times, 1888-1910, will be published later this year. He welcomes comment at [email protected]