Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, meets with other lawmakers shortly after his bill passed the House. Terrill's bill now goes to the Senate where if passed, would go to the attorney general to sign.

Two lawmakers square off in debate regarding making English the official language of Oklahoma. This led to the bill being passed, and now heads to the Senate.

English Only: Hot-Button Issue for State

Patricia Fennell was outraged as she read Senate Bill 1156, a piece of legislation that may soon become Oklahoma law.

“This bill would say Oklahoma is unfriendly toward immigrants,” said Fennell, executive director of the Latino Community Development Agency.

Fennell, like representatives of other ethnic minorities in Oklahoma, are concerned about the implications of enacting what some people have characterized as “English-only” legislation.

One version of the legislation, which has already received the Senate’s unanimous approval and will be taken up soon in the House, would make English the “official common language” of Oklahoma.

SB 1156, authored by Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, states that no state agency would be required to "provide any documents, information, literature or other written materials in any language other than English."

Anderson said his two-sentence bill would not require state agencies to produce anything in any language unless they are required to do so by federal law, but neither would it prohibit them from doing so if they so chose.

Anderson said he is confident his bill would work because other states have enacted similar legislation.

"This is the same language they've used in Missouri, and it seems to have worked," Anderson said.

Missouri’s new law, which mandates that "English shall be the language at all governmental meetings" in that state, won the approval of more than 80 percent of Missouri residents when it appeared on the ballot there last year.

The main difference between Anderson's bill and Missouri's law is that Anderson's bill does not require state agencies to produce written materials only in English, making the bill optional. Missouri requires the use of English only in any document produced by the state.

Anderson acknowledges that his bill was not meant to penalize those who disobey his legislation, but rather to set a precedent and get the issue "off the radar screen."

"It's been a divisive issue for a couple of years," Anderson said. "It doesn't create jobs or help the budget crisis in Oklahoma."

While Fennell said she disagrees with Anderson’s bill, she feels even more passionate about another bill because of her past opposition to its sponsor, who led a legislative campaign to crack down on illegal immigrants two years ago.

Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, has authored legislation this year that he said, unlike Anderson’s bill, would enact policies that give the state “real, official English.”

Terrill called Anderson’s bill a "meaningless, symbolic gesture." He said because Anderson wants to just get the controversial issue off the legislative agenda, he does not really believe in enacting official English in Oklahoma.

"My proposal is a real, meaningful, enforceable, official-English bill," Terrill said. "Anderson's bill is a worthless, unenforceable, sham piece of legislation that he is trying to pass off as official language."

Terrill's House Joint Resolution 1042 would declare English the "official language of the state of Oklahoma." It would direct government agencies not to "permit the use of any language other than English for any governmental documents."

Terrill said the resolution would even block some federal mandates from taking effect in Oklahoma. They include Executive Order 13166, issued by President Clinton in 2000, which states that a state agency must provide taxpayer-funded services in languages other than English when requested to do so.

Terrill said this would get rid of all services aimed at different languages, allowing the state to keep more resources.

"By not being under Executive Order 13166, my proposal would actually save money," Terrill said.

Terrill also cited Missouri's state question last year as a model for his resolution. But Missouri's proposal did not include a way to enforce its provisions.

Terrill's resolution would give Oklahoma citizens the right to sue the state if they see a violation in his legislation.

Anderson said this would open up the state to frivolous lawsuits, costing the state both money and time. He said the state cannot afford this risk during the current budget crunch.

But Terrill said frivolous lawsuits would not occur if his measure passed, and insisted the provision would be necessary for enforcement of the measure.

"The reason we authorize private causes of action is that that is the enforcement provision," Terrill said. "The reason we do that is a mechanism for holding government accountable."

Terrill said there would be some exceptions to the law, including the languages used by Native Americans.

“Tribes are not racial or ethnic entities,” Terrill said. “They are political classifications, so it is perfectly appropriate as well as legal and constitutional to exclude them from the scope of this bill.”

Despite this exception, some Native Americans such as Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby said they do not support the bill.

“The English-only resolution ignores the very fabric that makes up the framework of what is Oklahoma,” Anoatubby said. “The resolution is unnecessary and divisive.”

Anderson and Terrill are not the only individuals fueling the debate over official English in the Legislature. Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, co-sponsored Terrill's legislation. Even though Sykes voted in favor of Anderson’s bill, he insists Terrill's legislation is the best official-English proposal.

"I like the version I've introduced better, and that language is now in Terrill's resolution," Sykes said. "I support the concept of English as our official language. I just think our version is better and really gets to the intent of what most of the people of Oklahoma want in a better way."

HJR 1042 has won approval by the House last week. Oklahoma citizens may be one step closer to deciding if Terrill’s bill is the better version when they go to the polls in 2010 if HJR 1042 wins the approval of the Senate in the coming weeks. Anderson’s SB 1156, which cleared the Senate 46-0, would not require a vote of the people but must be signed by the governor to take effect.

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