Deseret News

Wednesday, January 20, 1999

'English-Only' Bills Spur Lots of Talk
By LUCINDA DILLON, Deseret News Staff Writer

It might be good, it might be bad. It might be racist or bigoted, but it might just be the prodding a person needs to succeed in the United States.
      Either way, discussion on Utah's Capitol Hill this week about Rep. Tammy Rowan's controversial English-only bill has been less about the debate and more about how to handle two bills centered on the subject.
      In an exceptional arrangement, the full House of Representatives will attend a public forum Thursday at 10 a.m. on a citizen initiative that would make English Utah's official language.
      No one would take Spanish language pamphlets off the counters in state organizations, but no new ones would be printed, explained Rowan, R-Orem.
      Driver's license information, now printed in English and Spanish, would be in English only in the future.
      The forum will take place in the State Office Building Auditorium, located behind the Utah State Capitol.
      Each side will have 20 minutes to present arguments. Rowan will organize the "pro" side. She said Tuesday her witnesses will be residents who are adamant about English-only laws and maybe one out-of-state witness to "provide the national perspective."
      Sen. Pete Suazo, D-Salt Lake, will gather arguments against the initiative, which comes to the Legislature after 39,783 valid signatures were collected in support of the English-only initiative.
      The lawmakers will then walk back to the Capitol and debate the initiative.
      The entire process is unprecedented, and discussion about two bills dominated talk in Capitol Hill hallways and the House GOP caucus Tuesday. Many on Utah's Capitol Hill are watching action carefully for constitutional and legislative precedent.
      After emotional debate last year, Rowan's bill died in a legislative committee. Efforts to revive the legislation were unsuccessful.
      This year, Rowan started early, lobbying for her bill, holding press conferences and gathering support from national groups and lawmakers.
      She debated at Weber State University.
      She debated at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute.
      She debated in radio and television interviews.
      The discussion has been complicated because there are two pieces of similar legislation.
      The first bill is Rowan's now famous "English-only" legislation, HB241. The second is the "English as the Official Language of Utah" initiative signed by enough residents to bring it before the state's lawmakers.
      The two pieces of legislation are similar but not exactly the same.
      This year, Rowan took the citizen initiative petition route believing incorrectly, as it turned out that rules on initiatives meant she would get a vote before the whole House.
      But some representatives resisted the plan, saying it would circumvent the normal legislative process of sending bills to committee for a public hearing first.
      And House Speaker Marty Stephens said much research by legislative attorneys shows that lawmakers don't really have to deal with a citizen initiative at all. "We could just send it to Rules, never bring it out or debate it, and it would die at the end of the session."
      But Stephens and other Republicans said that because so many people signed petitions, it was only right that the whole House vote on it.
      The Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also is watching the process closely.
      The initiative cannot be changed. Lawmakers must vote yes or no to support the initiative as it is written. But HB241 can be amended.
      Cori Sutherland, deputy director of the Utah ACLU, will watch to make sure HB241 won't be amended and sent to the House floor and bypass the committee and public opinion process.
      "The concern is that they comply with the process in whatever they're doing," said ACLU Director Carol Gnade. "We have experience of not doing that in the past."
      Several House Republicans expressed concern. A citizen initiative even one like Rowan's that had 39,783 resident signatures should take the normal bill route, they said. That is, it should go to a regular standing committee, where it could be amended or killed.
      Rowan warned that she would allow some amendments to her own bill. "But if you gut it" or turn it into something she doesn't like, she threatened to kill the bill and move forward on the citizen initiative itself. That must be voted up or down without amendments.
      Rowan's bill would make English Utah's official language and, with a few exceptions, would prohibit state agencies from conducting government business or printing information in any language but English.
      Rowan contends her bill would gently prod non-English-speaking immigrants into learning the language and would save government money through not publishing documents in other languages.
      A poll conducted for the Deseret News last November found three out of four respondents favored making English the state's official language.
      Comments are flying from every direction on the controversial subject:
      The conservative Utah Coalition for Freedom in Education supports the bills.
      In a letter sent recently to all House members, Rep. David Zolman, R-Taylorsville, called the bill unnecessary and offensive. "If one language is official does that mean all other languages are unofficial?" Zolman asked. "Such arrogance has no place in any state policy."
      Civil-rights advocate Joan Smith attacked the official-language bill as exclusionary in a speech commemorating Utah's Human Rights Day on the floor of the state's House of Representatives.
      The executive director of the Conference for Community and Justice compared the proposal to segregation of drinking fountains and hotels.
      "Official English is a self-centered, uncharitable policy that sends the message we will accept you only when you become like us," William Eggington, an expert in language planning and policy at BYU, told a language forum sponsored by Utahns for Responsible Legislation.
      The law "symbolizes narrow-minded monolingualism and, in the process, rejects our multicultural potential," he said.
      In a related bill, Rowan wants to appropriate $500,000 for adult English as a Second Language programs. The House Education Standing Committee forwarded the bill to the House floor Wednesday morning, and proponents said the bill stands to help an increasing number of refugees who come to Utah not knowing any English.