Academic journal article The Accounting Historians Journal

The First Wisconsin Accountancy Bill: An Historical Perspective

Academic journal article The Accounting Historians Journal

The First Wisconsin Accountancy Bill: An Historical Perspective

Article excerpt

Abstract: Wisconsin's first attempt to pass legislation certifying accountants occurred in 1901, the beginning of the La Follette era. Overwhelmed by the issues of the day, this first bill died and another was not introduced until the incorporation of the Wisconsin Association of Accountants in 1905. Subsequent legislation failed to pass each year until 1913 when a bill was finally signed by Governor Francis McGovern. The details of these efforts hint at political rivalries and professional dedication. This paper attempts to relate not only the documentary history of these bills, but also to convey a sense of the underlying debates.

The first successful CPA legislation in the U. S., the 1896 New York law which granted accountants the right to limit entry to their profession through a written exam, can be viewed as the beginning of the American accounting profession. However, by 1901, when Wisconsin initiated its first attempt at CPA legislation, only two additional states had joined New York. Over the 12 years it took to obtain statutory recognition for the profession in Wisconsin, another 19 states passed accountancy legislation.


The first bill to regulate accounting in Wisconsin was introduced in the state legislature in 1901. Wisconsin had just entered a period of unity and relative political calm. "No man could have been inducted into high office under conditions favoring him more than those that attended the inauguration of Governor Robert M. La Follette" [Philipp, 1973, p. 24]. In his inauguration speech on January 9, 1901, "Fighting Bob" restated his position supporting a direct primary law and railroad taxation [Plumb, 1930, p. 133]. Believing that he had a mandate from the people of the state to proceed, the governor caused the Direct Primary Bill to be introduced simultaneously in both houses of the legislature on January 28, 1901.

A week earlier, on January 21, James McGillivray, president pro tem of the Wisconsin Senate, had introduced Senate Bill 31 S calling for the certification of public accountants in the state. This bill provided that:

Any citizen of Wisconsin residing or having place for regular transaction of business in the state, being over the age of twenty-one years and of good moral character, and who shall receive from the board of examiners a certificate of his qualifications to practice as a public expert accountant as hereinafter provided, shall be styled and known as a certified public accountant.

The bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee for consideration. By February 12, however, the unity of the La Follette camp had begun to break apart and political maneuvering on the governor's part had led to suspicion and dissent [Philipp, 1973, p. 32]. Many of La Follette's supporters had defected because of what they perceived as an air of secrecy and backroom politics [Plumb, 1973, p. 27]:

It is an interesting fact, that with three noteworthy exceptions, no man connected with the faction that subsequently fought Governor La Follette so bitterly can put his finger on the specific act of the governor that first aroused his ire .... But conditions had changed now. As the days passed it was noticed that an air of mystery was beginning to gather about the capitol building. Men were called to the executive chamber for conferences, it is true, but they were carefully selected from among their fellows and the consultations were always held behind closed, guarded doors.

On February 12, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported a heated discussion between Senator McGillivray and Senator Andrew Kreutzer, chair of the Judiciary Committee and a former La Follette man. The tenor of the discussion as reported seemed to indicate that McGillivray was admonishing Kreutzer for improper or inefficient handling of Judiciary Committee business. Perhaps anticipating some "revenge" for his words, McGillivray reintroduced another accountancy bill, number 191 S, later that same day and requested that it be directed to the Senate's State Affairs Committee. …

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