Gov. Mike Leavitt weighed in Thursday against Utah’s initiative designating English as the official language, and he also turned thumbs down on the ballot measure aimed at reforming laws on property forfeiture in drug and other criminal investigations.
Leavitt, speaking at his monthly KUED-TV news conference, said Initiative A, the proposed English language law, is unnecessary and divisive.
“English is the official language of the state of Utah,” Leavitt said.
“I just don’t see that having a law that, in many ways, can divide us as a society, really does the job,” the governor said. “There are many who value their culture and value their heritage. And simply by passing a law declaring something that is already true, and it’s clearly evident, I’m not sure that it is necessary or productive.”
In fact, Leavitt said he worried that by taking a hard line on “English only,” government could throw up an obstacle to immigrants learning English in public schools. “You can’t teach somebody English without understanding Spanish and speaking to them in their own language,” he said.
While public opinion polls have shown the English initiative is popular, Leavitt and his Democratic challenger in the governor’s race, Bill Orton, say it is bad public policy.
“It is designed to divide people rather than solve problems,” said Orton. “There’s no solution in the initiative.”
Orton said he has publicly opposed the initiative since April, adding “I am happy to hear that [Leavitt] has finally taken a position.”
Leavitt’s announcement of opposition followed a meeting Tuesday with his Hispanic Advisory Council, which has been encouraging the governor and other public officials to take a stand against the official English proposal.
“The governor has a lot of influence,” said Council Chairman James Yapias in praising Leavitt’s statement.
The official-language movement “creates division within our community,” Yapias added. “It creates the myth or misrepresentation that one language is better than another.”
But U.S. English spokesman Tim Schultz said the only schism associated with the initiative is the one created by opponents “who attempt to make it look like there is malevolent intent.”
Rather than promoting discrimination, the official-language proposal is designed to prevent discord, Schultz said. Without designating a common language, “you’ll have a lot of immigrant enclaves [in future decades] that don’t speak English and that will lead to anti-immigrant sentiments. That’s what makes it easy to immigrant-bash and we don’t want that to happen.”
Initiative attorney Lisa Watts Baskin said Leavitt’s criticism that the law could squelch bilingual education is untrue.
Specific exceptions to “English only” are provided for education, health and public safety and various other government functions. “The exceptions far outstrip the rule, and it’s a fair measure,” said Watts Baskin. “It’s really intended to unify.”
Leavitt also opposes the separate ballot initiative to limit asset forfeiture, Initiative B.
“It essentially would create a situation where forfeiture would be taken as a tool away from law enforcement, particularly in the area of drugs,” he said. With Utah’s sizable problem with narcotics, particularly methamphetamine, Leavitt said enacting such a limitation would move “in the wrong direction.”
Orton said he has publicly opposed the forfeiture initiative for some time.
“Law enforcement needs that money. That’s what they use as seed money to do drug buys,” Orton said. “There is a provision to protect the innocent person.”
But Janet Jenson, a leader of the initiative, said 80 percent of the property forfeitures in the country target people never charged with a crime.
“What we are talking about taking away is the incentive to abuse people’s rights,” said Jenson. “The government must prove you are guilty of a crime before they take your property — that’s it in a nutshell.”
Jenson said it is not surprising Leavitt and other politicians are coming out against the proposal because “they are the ones who get the money and no one gives up money without a fight.”