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 amendments.
    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 hear it.
    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 minorities speak.
    ``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.''