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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

City, state await English decision

Thursday, February 28, 2002

The pressure is on Gov. Tom Vilsack to decide the fate of the English as the state's official language bill, after the Iowa House voted for it this week, agreeing to spend more than $1 million to help local schools teach it as a second language.

In the process, Rep. Russ Eddie, R-Storm Lake, pointed to statistics showing 48 percent of children in the Storm Lake schools do not speak English as a primary language.

Most polls have shown wide support for declaring English as the state's official language, Eddie noted, in changing his past stance. Eddie had been the swing vote against an official language bill previously.

Critics sought to persuade Vilsack that he would abandon his voter base by signing it. Supporters reminded the governor it was a popular bill in an election year. Vilsack was sending absolutely no signals.

"We're getting calls, letters and e-mails from both sides," said spokesman Joe Shannahan. "People are very passionate about this."

The governor has a mixed record on the issue. When he was a member of the Iowa Senate, Vilsack voted for a similar measure, but said his responsibilities have changed since he was elected governor.

The House approved the measure late Monday, and Vilsack issued a terse statement.

"We all agree that everyone who lives and works here should be proficient in English because it is the language that unites us and is the language of opportunity," the governor said. "But the true test is whether the Legislature stands by their commitment to provide the resources to help people actually learn English. Without that commitment, this is symbol without substance."

Aides declined to elaborate on the statement.

There are conflicting pressures on the governor. Many Hispanics and liberals are offended by the measure, and they make up the core of Vilsack's political base. Most legislative Democrats voted against the measure.

At the same time, Vilsack is on the ballot this year and all the polling has shown an overwhelming majority of Iowans favor declaring English the state's official language.

"I believe he will sign it," said Larry Pope, a former Republican House Majority Leader who lobbied hard against the measure. "He's given every indication he will sign it."

Legislative Democrats who fought the measure said they don't have any inside information.

"I would say he's probably leaning toward signing it," said House Democratic Leader Dick Myers, of Iowa City.

There won't be much of a wait for Vilsack's decision. Once the measure is reprinted and physically delivered to the governor's office he has only three days - because the Legislature is in session - to make his decision.

Rep. Eddie said on Wednesday the governor should already have a copy of the bill.

"We should know this week what he's going to do with it," Eddie said.

The House gave the measure final legislative approval 56-42 Monday night, sending it to Vilsack's desk.

After the vote, Vilsack issued a statement, urging lawmakers to focus on English education.

"Without that commitment, this is symbol without substance," he said.

The House approved the extra spending on a 93-0 vote, sending it to the Senate and likely easy approval before lawmakers plunged into an emotional fight over declaring English the official language.

Both sides conceded the issue was largely symbolic, but both also argued the symbolism was powerful.

"A support personally all of the cultures of America," said Rep. Dwayne Alons, R-Hull, main backer of the measure. "The strength of America has been that we can do our business together in English."

Critics, largely Democrats, gleefully quoted President Bush's criticism of declaring English the official language, noting that Texas with its huge Hispanic population has rejected that step.

Rep. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, said minority group members interpret the measure as excluding them and disrespecting their traditions.

"We do not want to pick out populations in our state and hold them out for ridicule," Hatch said.

Democrats sought to alter the measure to focus on English being the primary language of the state, and increasing efforts to increase English proficiency.

"It's based on the foundation that this state welcomes everyone," said Hatch.

Other critics warned that lawmakers were sending the poorest of signals of their own by spending time on the measure while the state struggles with deep budget problems.

They argued that Iowa must exist in an increasingly global economy if it's to turn the economy around.

"We rely on export businesses," said Rep. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines. "This bill sends a bad message to our trading partners throughout the world."

In addition, the state's population is stagnant, and growing older. The solution to both is increasing diversity, not sending messages the state isn't interested in the concept, Petersen said.

"Iowa's population is stagnant and young people are leaving us in droves," she said. "Our constituents are begging us to come up with solutions."

The measure would require that all government activities and documents be conducted in English, a requirement Hatch dismissed.

"English is already our official language," Hatch said.

Backers were seeking to reject a series of efforts to alter the measure, which won Senate approval last year on a 27-23 vote. If any changes are made, the measure would have to go back to the Senate and it's fate would be murky in a session shortened by budget troubles.

The new spending the House approved increases state support for English as a second language programs, a move that all sides agree is needed. Some have noted that students in the Des Moines school system speak 26 separate languages or dialects.

Some grumbled that Republicans running the chamber were linking that measure to the official English measure for political cover.

"We understand the political linkage," said Rep. Phil Wise, D-Keokuk. "We know why it is here."

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