OLYMPIA – A group of Republicans is proposing a November ballot measure that would make English the official language of Washington state.
That would mean that only English could be used in state documents, in records collected by the state and in official public meetings. Among the records affected would be wills, marriage certificates, property deeds and license-application forms.
“Full political, economic, and social empowerment depends to a large extent upon proficiency in the common language, and a lack of proficiency in the common language condemns people to a permanent second-class status behind a language barrier,” says a draft of the bill that Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, planned to introduce today.
“We are doing our citizens a disservice,” Benton said, if they aren’t proficient in English. “To continually print these things in 10, 12, 14, 27 foreign languages does nothing to help those citizens learn to read English. We provide them a continual crutch.”
The text of the bill says it would not ban “instruction designed to aid students with limited English proficiency in a timely transition and integration into the general education system.”
Foreign language would still be allowed in public-safety and health emergencies or for witness testimony in court.
“I think that’s a way to exclude some people from the workings of democracy,” said a critic of the proposal, Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle. “When someone can’t read a voters pamphlet or even a how-to guide at the Department of Licensing in a language they understand, they are being told that government is a conversation going on above your head.”
Benton and three other Republicans sponsored two different English-language bills last year but were unable to get a vote on either in the Senate. A group of House Republicans introduced a similar measure last year.
Benton said this year the issue has gained in prominence among Republicans. He figured his bill got a big boost yesterday when U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich mentioned it in his speech to the Legislature.
Gingrich said it is important that fourth-graders learn to read, adding, “They should learn how to read and write in English, because that is the commercial language of the United States.”
Said Benton, “It’s really just a concept whose time has come.”
Senate Majority Leader Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, said he supports making English the state’s official language and agreed with Gingrich that foreign speakers would benefit from the change. “I’m sure it would be hard for someone who speaks Uzbek, but only a very select group of people understand it,” McDonald said.
But he said there have not been discussions among Senate leaders about the bill. He is also worried about the Legislature sending too many issues to the ballot.
Already Republicans want voters to decide on a $ 2.4 billion transportation plan and Democrats want a public vote on Initiative 200, which would effectively ban affirmative action for minorities and women in state and local public employment, public education, state college admissions and public contracting.
Sending the English-language question to the ballot would avoid a possible veto by Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat.
“I have serious questions about the legality of that,” Locke said last night. “I think we’re bound by court decisions.”
Locke said he was most concerned about bilingual education and the teaching of English as a second language.
Benton said those programs wouldn’t be affected by his bill.
But Rep. Jim Dunn, R-Vancouver, has reintroduced his bill from last year that would let parents take their children out of bilingual instruction. The proposal, House Bill 1673, passed the House last year but did not get a vote in the Senate.
Gingrich also called on the Legislature yesterday to make bilingual education optional for local school districts.
Locke said he would also oppose that.
Kline said he will reintroduce a bill from last year opposing the move to make English the state’s official language. The measure would let schools provide “world language instruction” for students from non-English-speaking homes.
“The purpose of the instruction is not to help the students understand English better, but to improve the students’ ability to speak their native language and to understand the culture and customs of the country in which their families lived,” according to Senate Bill 5981.