IT’S that season again. With pens and petitions in hand, several small armies of citizen activists will soon be ringing doorbells and button-holing people around the Bay State.

At least 21 proposals are at stake. Each must have at least 50,525 voter signatures by late November. Included are measures to slash taxes, restrict prisoner furloughs, and limit credit-card interest rates.

But none may be as controversial or potentially volatile as the one that would make English the official state language.

That proposed constitutional amendment, similar to a measure endorsed overwhelmingly by California voters last November, could have a far-reaching impact on a number of Bay State residents who neither read nor write English.

Boosters of the initiative, including its prime mover, state Rep. Charles Silvia (D) of Fall River, insist the proposal is not directed at any specific ethnic group. The goal, they say, is to encourage those who migrated to Massachusetts to use English.

The proposal could restrict certain opportunities now available even to those who can’t speak or at least read English.

Under the proposal, Civil Service examinations for certain public-employee jobs now available in Spanish and other languages would be given only in English. Similarly, the printing of ballots and voter information in Spanish or other languages would be a thing of the past.

If a resident cannot understand and communicate in English, he or she cannot become an American citizen, backers of the initiative point out. But what about Puerto Ricans, who are most certainly American citizens, although not necessarily English-speaking?

To what extent are non-English speakers entitled to a job application, driver’s license, or whatever in their native language?

Promoters of English as the official language concede that they may have a tough time selling their proposal in a state that is such a melting pot of peoples.

Obviously elimination of document printing in more than the one language would save taxpayer dollars and duplication of effort.

Moreover, Louis Cabral, an aide to Mr. Silvia, who is of Portuguese extraction, says it is often hard to translate complex ballot questions without some distortion.

English as the state’s official language would not deny people their civil rights, petition sponsors insist. The Welfare Department, courts, and other government agencies that deal with the public would continue to have employees who could serve as interpreters. Indeed, there is little doubt under the constitution that such services could not be denied.

But the future of bilingual education, a state program in which millions of dollars have been invested over the past decade, could be in jeopardy.

Were the initiative to be approved, lawmakers would still be free to reshape this approach to bridging the language gap between what is spoken at home and English.

The bilingual education program has been under increasing attack by legislators for its failure in some instances to prepare pupils for transfer to regular English-speaking classes within the mandated three years.

Whether the drive for English as the official language makes it in Massachusetts could hinge on its leaders’ statewide organization effort in the next few weeks. No more than a fourth of the required signatures can come from one county.

Petition sponsors must convince voters that they are not out to deprive anyone of a legitimate right and that their pursuits are not aimed at a particular ethnic group.

If the signature requirement is met, that could be the easiest step, since the proposal then must win approval of at least 25 percent of the 200 state lawmakers meeting in joint Senate-House convention in 1988, then again by the two branches in 1989 or 1990.

Because of its potentially divisive nature within various Senate or House districts, some lawmakers who might privately favor the move for an official language might be cool to voting for it.

There is no question that foes of the proposal will be better organized than they were in California and some of the dozen other states that have adopted similar measures over the past few years.

Proponents of English as the official language in Arizona and Florida are also pursuing the initiative-petition route to put their proposals across. Legislatures in a couple of dozen other states will be considering such measures next year.

Besides California, statutes or the constitutions in Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia have designated English as the official state language.



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