Breaking News
More () »

After fifty years, Sawin Millett is still a leader in Maine Legislature

Millett has been a mainstay in Augusta through multiple administrations and terms in the Legislature.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In the halls of the Maine State House, Rep. Sawin Millett often walks with a stack of folders and binders under one arm. Among other things, those papers hold details of the state budget – confusing to many lawmakers, perhaps, but not to Millett, who arguably knows more about those numbers than anyone in state government. 

He has been in the Legislature, off and on, for 50 years. Dealing with the state budget and related issues for most of the past 50 years, starting when he was a teacher and school administrator in 1968.

“I’m in my ninth term, which means 17 years in the House of Representatives,” Millett said.

Those numbers, however, are only the start of his remarkable story of public service in Maine.

After serving his initial two terms in the House, at a time when lawmakers were paid so little he had to borrow money to get to Augusta, Millett returned to the position of principal and assistant superintendent in his small, rural school district. 

Then, he was hired to be the first executive director of the newly formed Maine School Management Association. In 1975, independent Gov. Jim Longley hired Millett to be Maine’s Commissioner of Education. He held that post through Longley’s four years and for the first six months of the term of Democratic Gov. Joe Brennan.

Millett says he returned to the school management job, but when Republican John McKernan was elected governor, he recruited Millett to be in charge of school finances and then become the state finance commissioner. He held that position for McKernan's two terms, then joined independent Gov. Angus King, first as .egislative director, then in charge of finance for the mental health department.

Millett returned to the House for eight years during the term of Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, becoming the Legislature’s leading expert on the state budget. GOP Gov. Paul LePage hired him again to be finance commissioner, a job Millett left at the end of LePage’s first term.

“I thought I would retire in 2014,” he joked but was soon recruited to help Senate Republicans deal with the budget. Then, in 2018, it was back to the House where Millett is currently serving his 9th term.

It's a record of experience, expertise, and knowledge unmatched in the Legislature.

“Well, I’ve done all those jobs,” said the veteran lawmaker, “Been legislative director, sat in that room 228 [where the Appropriations Committee meets]. Half of my legislative career has been spent in 228. I know those issues.”

His knowledge of those issues impresses those on both sides of the political aisle 

“I really appreciate watching him use his analytical thinking skills, which are amazing, “ said longtime Appropriations Democrat Sen. Peggy Rotundo. 

She and Millett have served together and worked together to settle multiple state budgets.

“There is little he doesn’t know about finances and state government, and it's just a pleasure to watch that brain work.”

For Millett, the goal is bipartisan solutions to the issues and problems facing the Legislature. The Republican lawmaker says that lesson was taught long ago, in his first years in the House.

“And it was so much fun sitting in a chamber of 151 people, many of them older than my grandfather, and many from rural Maine, farmers, fishermen,” he recalled.

“They weren’t so much in this power game of Democrats versus Republicans. We always reached across the aisle, we were in homogenous seating then, and I sat between a pipe-smoking Democrat and a very wealthy logger from Bridgewater on the Republican side. And here I was a young guy, and I learned more that first session than I did in my master's program at the university,” he said.

There has been a partisan strain in the two most recent budget cycles, as Democrats passed what is referred to as “majority budgets” in 2021 and again this year. Republicans were largely cut out of the decisions in those talks. In both cases, there were separate negotiations on budgets for new or expanded programs, and the GOP did play a role in those decisions.

Despite those challenges, Millett says he still is focused on working with both sides to negotiate successful budgets.

“My questions and my work has always been across the aisle, always helping them to understand the path to a solution. The path to agreement, not to just try to butt heads and out-maneuver people. I say during my campaigns I am going to Augusta to search for solutions to problems. I’m not going there to search for scapegoats. There is no future, nothing gained if all you’re looking for is somebody to blame and [just] vote 'no' on issues that require clear thinking,” he said.

Millett says that’s been his approach for fifty years. And despite frustrations over those years, he still likes the work.

“I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t,” he said with a smile. “There is some question [of] how much longer I’ll do it because I’ve been the oldest person in the Legislature the last three years. And I’m not term-limited, but each night when I get home, like I did last night, got home [at] 11:30, and wonder: should I still be doing this?”

For now, he is still doing it. Millett is still the one many look to for answers when the questions become difficult, even after 50 years of helping Maine's government make the tough choices.

More stories from 207:

Before You Leave, Check This Out