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1970 Constitutional Convention shaped Illinois' future

1970 Constitutional Convention shaped Illinois' future

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The Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1970 was the sixth in the state’s history, and it produced the first changes to the state’s governing document in a century. One writer aptly described the process as an example of “splendid bipartisan cooperation.”

Support for a new constitution had existed for decades, particularly from governors of the 1940s and 1950s, but the legislature chose not to call for a convention. Female activists, particularly the League of Women Voters, were among the most vocal of proponents, and in 1967, the General Assembly sent the question of a new convention for a referendum.

In popular voting in 1968, the measure easily passed, with 2.98 million votes in favor and 1.14 million against. The 116 convention delegates, two from each senate district, were elected the following year.

They were a diverse lot. Democrats and Republicans were almost evenly divided, while there were 13 blacks and 15 women among the group. Fifty-six were Protestant and thirty-five were Catholic, while professions such as teachers, farmers and business people were fairly represented, unlike earlier state conventions.

Some key statewide issues, such as judicial reform and reapportionment, had been settled before the convention, which opened in the House chamber on Dec. 8, 1969. One of the earliest decisions was the intent to focus only on basic state laws, a departure from previous conventions that dealt with some of the smallest issues, a detriment to effective state government.

Samuel Witwer, a Republican attorney from Kenilworth, was chosen as convention president, and has been lauded for his efficiency and foresight. Standing committees were designated to create specific portions of the document, and public hearings were periodically held across Springfield to welcome questions and concerns from citizens. 

Unlike previous conventions, the 1970 gathering produced a new document in only eight months. The new constitution was adopted in the convention on Sept. 3, 1970, and was endorsed by Gov. Richard Ogilvie, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, multiple major newspapers, and several leading organizations. Voters ratified the constitution on Dec. 15 on a vote of 1,122,425 to 838,168, and the document went into effect on July 1, 1971.

Among the key provisions was home rule, which increased taxing authority to cities of more than 25,000 in population and counties of more than 200,000. The home rule article sought to reduce confusion between public agencies, since many residents were under the jurisdiction of multiple taxing bodies and sometimes required the General Assembly to rule on questions. Home rule was a prime example of the new constitution’s goal of simplifying state government.

The constitution also included a provision banning “discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, national ancestry, and sex in the hiring and promotion practice of any employer or in the sale or rental of property.” Protective measures for women and the disabled were also included.

Ogilvie had pushed the General Assembly for a state income tax, which was included in the new constitution. In contrast, personal property taxes were to be abolished by 1979. The governor was also required to annually submit a balanced budget for approval in the legislature.

It was only one of several gubernatorial changes in the document. The governor received authority for line-item vetoes, though the percentage of vote in the legislature to override a veto was dropped from 66 percent to 60 percent. In addition, governors and lieutenant governors were required to be from the same party, while a new official, the comptroller, replaced the state auditor. 

Daley was considered one of the biggest winners of the process, as he fervently supported home rule and successfully lobbied to continue the system of nominating judges to their first terms in office. Similarly, Republicans and advocates of better government were satisfied with the streamlining of state politics. Thirteen amendments have since been added to the document.

The cooperative nature of the 1970 Constitutional Convention was not a sign of things to come. The ensuing decade brought some of the most damaging political scandals in state history and rattled the confidence of the citizenry in their elected leaders. But the new constitution was hailed for its vision and its sweeping improvements in the government of Illinois.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher who lives in Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.

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