Salt Lake Tribune
Friday, January 22, 1999
English-Only Legislation Killed By House Vote
By SHAWN FOSTER, The Salt Lake Tribune
For the third time in as many years, the Utah Legislature
has rejected official-English legislation. Even so, the issue is not dead.
In a 43-31 vote Thursday, House members killed the citizen
initiative sponsored by Tammy Rowan, R-Orem, that would have made English
the state's official language.
In a state where, according to the U.S. Census, 99 percent
of the population speaks English well, some lawmakers had difficulty understanding
why there was a need for Rowan's measure.
``This is a solution looking for a problem,'' said Dave
Jones, D-Salt Lake City. ``I'm having a hard time figuring out what the
problem really is.''
Keele Johnson, R-San Juan, lamented the history of racist
U.S. policies toward American Indians. He said Rowan's initiative was a
step back to those days. Rowan's initiative would have made English Utah's
official language and, with a few exceptions, would have prohibited state
agencies from conducting government business or printing information in
any language but English.
After lawmakers rejected Rowan's English-only bills
in 1997 and 1998, she went to the people, asking them to sign an initiative.
With the help of volunteers, as well as professional signature-gatherers
paid by U.S. English, a group from Washington, D.C., the two-term representative
obtained the signatures of 39,783 Utahns.
As a result, the initiative went straight to the House
floor on Thursday, bypassing the usual committee review. The initiative
process also required representatives to vote on the measure without making
Rowan also has an English-only bill in the House Rules
Committee. Efforts to bring the initiative and Rowan's bill to the floor
at the same time were defeated by a voice vote in the House on Wednesday.
The bill will remain in the Rules Committee until a
decision is made on which House committee, if any, will be assigned to
Before the session, Rowan vowed that if her initiative
failed she would attempt to gather an additional 27,405 signatures so that
the issue would be put before voters in November 2000.
Either way, ethnic minority leaders -- as well as many
of Rowan's fellow Republicans -- say they will not let up in their opposition.
Twenty-two Republicans joined House Democrats in voting
against the initiative.
And most ethnic minority organizations -- from the Japanese
American Citizens League to the Utah Coalition of La Raza -- have fought
Rowan's measure in all its incarnations.
Jim Gonzales, a Salt Lake City Latino activist, said
that Rowan is working from ``erroneous assumptions.''
Rowan is wrong, said Gonzales, when she argues that
recent immigrants are not motivated to learn and use English. Already,
he said, English-as-a-second-language classes are overflowing.
Speaking at an emotional 40-minute public hearing before
the House convened to consider Rowan's measure, Gonzales said that, historically,
first-generation immigrants do not learn to speak perfect English, but
their children and grandchildren do.
``I say give it time,'' Gonzales said. ``It worked for
your grandparents, your forebearers. It will work for [new immigrants].''
Mauro Mujica, head of U.S. English, said that the movement
to make English the official language is misunderstood.
``We're not trying to stop anybody from speaking their
language,'' Mujica said to more than 200 supporters and opponents of the
legislation. ``We're not talking about speaking other languages at church,
with friends or at home. We're talking about the language of government.''
The real injustice, Rowan told her fellow lawmakers,
is not prohibiting state government from providing information in languages
other than English. What is unfair, she said, is printing some brochures
in Spanish, for example, but not in the many other languages that ethnic
``Why isn't anyone up in arms about the 119 language
groups that [do not receive information in their native languages]?'' Rowan
asked. ``That is not good government.''