TBT: 763 bills

Illinois House Speaker and Senate
President of  the 51st General Assembly.
The 101st Illinois General Assembly convened on January 9 of this year. On the 9th day of its existence, the 763rd House bill was introduced. In those nine days, the members of the Illinois House introduced the same number of bills as their predecessors did in the entire two-year term of the 51st General Assembly which convened 100 years ago.

The 2019 Senate took a little longer to reach the 1919 Senate’s output. This year’s Senate did not catch its predecessor’s output of 580 bills until January 31, the 23rd day after convening.

As Illinois began the first year of its second century of statehood, its 204 state legislators (51 Senators and 153 Representatives), representing its 6,485,280 people, had a lot to do. Appropriations for “hard roads,” working conditions for women, a proposed statewide police force, and even the legalization of ten-round boxing matches were some of the pieces of legislation on the agenda of the 51st General Assembly when it met in Springfield in January 1919.

The members of the General Assembly who took the oath of office in 1919 came from a wide-ranging set of occupations. There were plenty of attorneys and farmers; just like today; but the assembly also included a horse merchant, two cigar manufacturers, four “druggists,” a lumber and coal dealer, and a barber. However, the state legislature was still four years away from inaugurating its first woman, Rep. Lottie Holman O’Neill (R-Downers Grove), who took office in January 1923.

When the clock stuck noon on January 6, 1919, the 51st General Assembly was formally convened. Republicans held a 90-63 majority in the House and a 34-17 majority in the Senate. The House chose Rep. David Shanahan (R-Chicago) as Speaker and Rep. Michael Igoe (D-Chicago) as Minority Leader, while in the Senate, Sen. Adam Cliffe (R-Sycamore) was elected President and Sen. Al Gorman (D-Chicago) was Minority Leader. The Senate selected James Paddock as its secretary, a post he had first attained in 1877. The House clerk, Bert McCann, was a relative newcomer, as it was only his fifth term in that office.

Over the course of the next five months, the 51st General Assembly would review legislation addressing both the critical and the mundane issues of the time. It would also work to pass a state budget, which in those days was done on a biennial basis.

The 1919-1920 state budget had greatly expanded from the previous General Assembly. State spending on education jumped from $8 million in 1917 to $12 million in 1919. New spending items were added for travel expenses for judges, for new state inspectors, for construction of the Centennial Building on the State Capitol grounds and for a series of historic sites. But the biggest increase came in the field of infrastructure.

In November 1918, voters had approved a major bond issue for road construction. Where the previous General Assembly had adopted a $50 million state budget in 1917, this time, the 51st General Assembly would spend more than $172 million over two years, with $60 million of that coming from the highway bond issue and another $20 million from a bond issue for waterways. The explosion in the number of automobiles on the roads was apparent, as fees from automobile licenses increased from just over $3 million in 1917 to more than $17 million in 1919. The plan was for the state to build 4,500 miles of hard roads, augmenting the existing 895 miles of hard roads which had been completed at the start of the year. By comparison, Illinois today has 147,005 miles of roadway, including 15,908 miles under state jurisdiction. But it was the actions of the 51st General Assembly that really set in motion the building of the highway infrastructure we use today.

Not to be overlooked, the legislature also took action regarding waterways. Governor Frank Lowden, a Republican now in the second half of his first and only term as the state’s chief executive, had advocated for a connection to be built between the Sanitary District of Chicago channel and the Illinois River. The program had already been approved by the federal government, and in 1919 the Illinois legislature gave its stamp of approval as well, opening the way for a water route between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.

Governor Lowden had gained national fame through his re-organization of state government in the first half of his term. There remained some unfinished work which the legislature would tackle in 1919. Among these was a call for a new state Constitutional convention. Though the convention did eventually occur, the voters did not agree to its proposed new Constitution and the effort failed. Illinois would not adopt a new state Constitution for another half century.

Lowden was more successful in his effort at reforming an antiquated tax code in the 51st General Assembly. In 1919 the legislature abolished the State Board of Equalization, which had been around since the 1870s, and replaced it with a three-member Tax Commission, appointed by the Governor. The state also reformed its tax laws dealing with corporations and insurance franchises, which brought in millions in additional revenue.

The 51st General Assembly enacted legislation that would be a forerunner of the federal prohibition laws, governing procedures for searches and seizures in cases of illicit alcohol production. They appropriated $50,000 to the Attorney General to enforce the prohibition law. Legislators banned high schools from having fraternities or sororities, but did allow schools to provide free textbooks, and required elementary schools to use English. It was during these years that legislation was passed reorganizing Chicago city government into the 50-ward structure it has today. It was also the 51st General Assembly which passed the legislation accepting the property now known as Lincoln’s New Salem into state ownership for preservation as a state park.

In the field of agriculture, the legislature made funds available to fight against tuberculosis in cattle; which was then ravaging farms nationwide. A law was passed entering Illinois into a federal vocational education program, and another required seeds sold in Illinois to be standardized and properly labeled.

Governor Lowden and Maj. Gen. George Bell Jr.
at Hoboken just after the arrival of troops of
the 33rd Division from France
With soldiers beginning to come home following the recent end of World War I, Illinois legislators passed a bill which created a veterans hiring preference for parks as well as state and city governments. Funds were appropriated for the furnishing of a bronze medal to every Illinois veteran of the war, and counties were allowed to levy a specified tax to build monuments honoring their local soldiers. Honorably discharged veterans would now be eligible for a special scholarship to state universities. The state also authorized the Department of Public Welfare to operate a rehabilitation hospital for wounded veterans, a hospital which was eventually opened up to all who needed its services.

The 51st General Assembly also outlawed racial and religious discrimination in hotels and theaters.

During the 51st General Assembly state agencies began licensing coffee houses, egg dealers and ice cream manufacturers. The state would also henceforth require a license for private detectives, children’s boarding homes and optometrists. The legislature investigated allegations of price-fixing by road material contractors. The investigation did not firmly conclude that such collusion was happening, but noted a disturbing similarity in prices from one contractor to the next. The legislature ultimately passed legislation allowing the state to make its own road materials as a way of forcing prices down.

Legislators defeated a number of proposed bills as well. Most prominent among them were a bill to grant municipalities home rule powers over public utilities and a bill Governor Lowden supported which would have enacted an eight-hour work day for women in Illinois. Another bill which went down to defeat during the 51st was the so-called “constabulary bill,” which would have created a state police force. That agency was eventually created in the next General Assembly. The long fight between state government and the city of Chicago over rail lines was just as much a part of the 51st General Assembly as it had been for many years. Two more decades would pass before it was resolved.

When all was said and done, the 51st General Assembly passed 429 bills (222 Senate and 207 House). Of those, Governor Lowden vetoed 39. Included among those vetoes was the 10-round boxing bill.

A session which saw the General Assembly take on highway construction, tax reform, a biennial budget, caring for returning soldiers, municipal government reform, historic preservation and dozens of other issues, would have two of its most meaningful, far-reaching actions take place right at the outset and very near its conclusion. In January, Illinois ratified the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would enact Prohibition. Near the end of session, the General Assembly convened with the goal of ratifying the 19th Amendment, thus making Illinois the first state in the nation to ratify the Constitutional amendment extending voting rights to women.

With that action on June 10, 1919, the 51st General Assembly cemented its legacy as one of the most consequential General Assemblies in Illinois history.