As Gov. Paul LePage prepares his annual speech to the Maine Legislature, he might want to read Gov. Edwin Burleigh’s speech, delivered in 1891.
Burleigh, after welcoming the new legislature, started right in with a detailed financial report, including a substantial decrease in bonded debt to $2,602,300 (about one-quarter of the debt in 1869). “A comparison of these figures will clearly show to the people of Maine what has been accomplished during the last 20 years, and how carefully and prudently her financial interests have been managed during that time,” he noted.
In addition, “within the last decade the rate of taxation in Maine has been reduced from five mills in 1880 to two and one-quarter mills in 1890.” Almost half of that went to “Common Schools” and 287 towns and plantations received more money from the state than they paid into its treasury. I probably don’t have to tell you how much that has changed!
When he got to other spending issues I was intrigued by some of them. Money went to two “Insane Hospitals,” a new building and farm at the Reform School and quite a bit of money to “settlers in Madawaska Territory.”
And here’s some advice from Gov. Burleigh that I am certain will resonate with Gov. LePage: “Whether the low rate of taxation, which has existed during the past year, is to continue in the future, will depend largely upon the action of the present Legislature in the matter of establishing a new State valuation, and the economy practiced in the appropriation of public moneys.”
That legislature was going to respond to a commission’s recommendations for a more equitable system of taxation, after a study of taxes in other states.
The governor’s message was very long, 27 pages, and reported on all aspects of state government, including a newly constructed Reformatory for Women and the Industrial School for Girls, and extensions of the State Capitol and State Library.
At that time the state supported Common Schools, Free High Schools, and Normal Schools, and the governor noted that “the training of intelligent, virtuous, order-loving, and law-abiding citizens… is one of the paramount interests of the state.”
I was astonished to learn that Burleigh was advocating for Maine to adopt the Australian system of voting. He was 125 years ahead of his time. Australia uses a system in which voters number the candidates on the ballot in the order of their preference. Yes, that’s the ranked-choice system Maine voters just endorsed in a referendum!
The governor also reported on our state’s primary industries, foremost of which was agriculture, employing 80,000 residents. Manufacturing was also growing too. He emphasized the need to fund the Maine State College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts.
Maine citizens had just voted against an initiative to end prohibition. “By an emphatic majority,” noted the governor, “they declared their belief that the best interests of temperance in this State, and the highest welfare of all citizens, demand the maintenance of prohibition.”
He did note that, “It cannot be denied that the law for the suppression of the liquor traffic is often violated, and that officials charged with its enforcement are frequently derelict in duty.”
He emphasized the need to get tough on poachers of our wild fish and game, and to assure the “preservation of forest growth.” He cited the carelessness that was causing many forest fires around the country.
Regarding Indians, he reported, “The affairs of the Indian tribes appear to be in excellent condition. Moral and treaty obligations alike demand that these wards of the State should have our watchful care and protection.”
He complimented the State Board of Health and noted that “outside of a very few towns there has been no great prevalence of infectious diseases within the State during the past two years,” and he advocated for a state registry of births and deaths.
Burleigh’s conclusion is still a timely and important one. “As we turn to the important work of the session, we must bear clearly in mind the fact that we are here not as the representatives of any special interests or sections of the State, but as the representatives of all interests and all sections. Let us act fearlessly and conscientiously for the furtherance of whatever, in our judgment, may be the highest good for the whole state.
“It is my earnest hope that, with the blessing of God, our labors here for the welfare of our beloved State may be crowned with such success as shall permanently advance its interests and make for the lasting benefit of all its citizens.”
And that, my friends, is all we can hope for from our governor and Legislature.