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January 3, 2019

Mills stresses economic strength in inaugural speech

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
The crowd reacts after Janet Mills is sworn in as the state's first female governor Wednesday night at the Augusta Civic Center.

AUGUSTA — Strengthening the state's economy by addressing issues related to climate change, health care, education and inclusion underlined the message from the state's new governor, Janet Mills, in her inaugural speech Wednesday night.

Mills proposed an Office of Innovation and the Future, as well as a new position to direct opioid recovery efforts in a speech before an enthusiastic crowd that nearly filled the 6,700-seat Augusta Civic Center.

She lauded a state economy that focuses on "the firefighters and teachers, the techies and hotel workers, the farmers and fishermen, the waiters and loggers, and the barbers and millworkers," but also includes "employers, entrepreneurs and innovators, with new ideas for forest products, aquaculture, recreation, renewables."

Mills, a Democrat and the state's first female governor in its 199-year history, is also the first governor from Franklin County. She's also probably the first to quote Maine's first registered guide, Franklin County native Cornelia "Fly Rod" Crosby, who said, "I'd rather fish any day than go to heaven."

While Mills spoke lovingly of the state's natural attributes, she also gave a nod to its working culture.

"Many days I awake to see the mist rising from the Sandy River as it steers its course to the Kennebec, the winter's breath unveiling a new day in my hometown, a new day in this state," she said. "Then I hear the familiar sounds of chickadees, church chimes and Jake brakes."

The theme carried through a half-hour speech that quoted Penobscot Nation's first elected chief, Joseph Attean; Gov. Israel Washburn Jr., inaugurated in 1861; and writers Henry David Thoreau and Kurt Vonnegut.

The underlying theme was improving the state's economic strength through a variety of channels, that ranged from addressing climate change, health care issues and education, to becoming more inclusive.

'Advancing economic health'

Mills in the conclusion of her speech, invoked Vonnegut, who said "Every government ought to have a Department of the Future."

She said her administration will create an Office of Innovation and the Future.

"This office will dive into major policy challenges, foster collaboration and propose concrete, workable solutions," she said.

Earlier, she said that her administration will be dedicated to advancing the state's economic health.

"To employers, entrepreneurs and innovators, with new ideas for forest products, aquaculture, recreation, renewables, and everything in between, I say, 'You are welcome here,'" she said.

In order to develop a "world-class workforce," the state has to improve education offerings, as well as make the state attractive to "talented young people."

"Fewer than half of Maine adults now hold a post-secondary credential — either a college degree or a professional certification," she said. "Yet two out of three jobs require such credentials.

"This imbalance is why we have … employers saying they can't find workers, and workers saying that they are stuck in dead-end jobs."

She said she will work with the Legislature "to achieve the best education for our people, from preschool through college and beyond, beginning with full and fair funding for schools, including our Career and Technical Centers."

While she didn't specifically say she will remove the "Open for Business" signs at the state's southern border erected by the LePage administration, she told a cheering crowd, "From now on, a sign will greet all those arriving in our state at the Kittery line. It will say, quite simply, 'Welcome Home.'"

She added, drawing a laugh, that she was just told she'd have to get approval from the Maine Turnpike Authority, which is led by her brother Peter Mills.

'Climate change is threatening jobs'

Mills said her administration will increase its focus on the effects of climate change and its impact on the state's resources.

"The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other saltwater body in the world, driving our lobsters up the coast. Our coastal waters are growing acidic; temperatures are fluctuating, and sea levels are rising, endangering our shellfish industry," she said. "Our forests are less suitable for spruce and fir and more suitable for ticks.

"Climate change is threatening our jobs, damaging our health and attacking our historic relationship to the land and sea."

She said her administration will "embrace clean energy; change our modes of transportation; weatherize homes and businesses, and reach a goal of 50 percent of our electricity coming from Maine renewable resources."

She said doing so will "create good-paying jobs, preserve our environment, and welcome young people to build a green future here in Maine."

She added that shortly, the Blaine House, the governor's mansion, will have solar panels on its roof.

Health care 'is for everyone'

Mills also cited access to health care as one of the state's major economic issues.

"Maine voters agree — which is why they voted to expand Medicaid. Hospitals, nurses, doctors and businesses all agree as well," she said, to the biggest standing ovation of the night.

"Health care is for everyone, not just the well-to-do," she said. "It is for the small businesses struggling to pay high health insurance bills. It is for the family on the brink of bankruptcy because of one illness, accident or medical mishap.

"It is for the community that takes up collections in a jar at the corner store to pay for a neighbor's medical costs."

She vowed that her administration will expand Medicaid, and pay for it sustainably.

She said she will "work to ensure that every person has primary care; control the cost of health insurance; and rein in the cost of prescription drugs."

The opioid epidemic is also part of the state's health care issue, she said.

"History will note that we have abandoned an entire generation of people to this preventable disease," she said.

With a focus that "will offer a helping hand, not pass judgment," her administration will create a director of opiate response position to "marshal the collective power and resources of state government to stem the tide of this epidemic." Moves will include making the overdose antidote Narcan widely available, as well as medication-assisted treatment and recovery coaches.

Message of diversity

Mills' inauguration celebrated the state's diversity – the national anthem was sung by 15-year-old Alain Igerneza, of Portland, and a performance of Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire" by Shy Paca, 11, and Natali Mbadu, 10, also of Portland, brought the house down.

The invocations included a prayer by the Rev. Kenneth I. Lewis, of the Green Memorial AME Zion Church of Portland; Maulian Dana, the tribal ambassador of the Penobscot Nation, who got a standing ovation when she called for a change from Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day; and Rabbi Erica Asch of Temple Beth El in Augusta.

Wesley McNair, poet laureate from 2011 to 2016, read a poem he wrote for the occasion, "The Song for the Unsung."

Mills concluded with a call for unity, saying, "We are Republicans, Greens, Democrats, Libertarians, Independents, and many more besides.

"These differences … make Maine strong. Our diversity is a virtue — one that we should harness to advance good public debate and good public policy. We welcome the voices of newcomers to the public conversation — the young, immigrants, people of different cultures, people of color, people of different orientations. All are important members of the Maine family.

"We are strengthened by our connections. We are one Maine, undivided, one family from Calais to Bethel, from York to Fort Kent."

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