A measure making English the state's official language — twice rejected in the Utah Legislature — will be on the November election ballot. And people on both sides of the often emotional issue are mobilizing to begin the tug-of-war for voters.
A second initiative, aimed at reforming Utah's asset-forfeiture law, a tool used by law enforcement to seize property from criminals, also qualified for a spot on the November ballot. Supporters collected 95,000 signatures.
The State Election Office certified a petition Thursday to place the proposed English as Official Language Act before residents. Proponents needed 67,188 verified signatures of registered voters; they mustered more than 74,600, according to the elections office.
U.S. English, a national organization pushing the measure in Utah, held a late-morning news conference Thursday to launch a campaign to get the initiative passed. In another press conference, Utahns for Property Protection announced the official certification of the measure to reform Utah's forfeiture laws.
On the English-only measure, Rep. Jordan Tanner, R-Provo, said the proposed law is aimed at helping all Utahns, especially because it encourages teaching non-English speaking students the language in public schools. He said he sees "overwhelming" support for the proposal.
A local group called Utah Common Voices held a pre-emptive news conference of its own on the Capitol steps an hour earlier.
"I totally don't see Utahns supporting this," said Mata Finau, a Utahn of Tongan descent, who heads the opposition group. "It's totally against the grain of what the traditional cultural heritage is in Utah."
The law would make English the sole language of state government, meaning all official documents, proceedings and meetings would be in English. Exceptions would be allowed for health and safety needs and to promote tourism, including the hosting of international events like the Olympics. Public schools would have to adopt rules to help non-English speaking children and adults read, write and understand the language as quickly as possible.
Gov. Mike Leavitt was hesitant to weigh in on the issue after being informed Wednesday it would be on the ballot. English is the official language of the state and the nation, he said, adding Utah ought to be doing everything it can to help people learn the language.
But "I don't think having a law is going to be the solution," Leavitt said.
Tanner, who helped organize the petition drive, said the measure would save "not thousands but millions of dollars" in printing costs for documents that now require copying in multiple languages.
"Utah also has a strong tradition of limited government and limited spending of tax dollars," he said.
Tanner's colleague, Rep. Tammy Rowan, R-Orem, brought so-called "English-only" bills to the Legislature in 1998 and 1999. The first one died in a House committee.
Last year, supporters gathered enough names on a petition to get it before the House again, where it failed. Under Utah law, if a petition receives half of the signatures needed to get on the ballot, the measure can be taken to the Legislature, which must consider it.
Petition-gatherers, a mix of U.S. English paid personnel and local volunteers, spent the past year collecting enough signatures to attain ballot status for the November election. Signatures from the earlier petition are allowed to carry over.
U.S. English spokesman Tim Schultz said he didn't know how much money was spent on the Utah effort but it relied on $5 and $10 donations. The organization, based in Washington, D.C., has about 10,000 Utah members, he said.
"We wish we had a billionaire fronting us, but we don't," Schultz said. And to promote the initiative's passage, he said, U.S. English doesn't plan to spend an "outrageous" amount of money.
"What a waste of time," said Brigham Young University English professor Bill Eggington, an expert in language planning and policy. "Actually, it's more than a waste of time in the sense that you have a ballot initiative or a bill . . . that's never going to accomplish what it's designed to accomplish."
Eggington said the English-only proposal sends the message that Utah won't offer services to non-English speakers "until you're like us. It basically sets up a them-vs.-us mentality."
Tanner said he anticipates lots of "misinformation" about the proposal will be spread. "It doesn't say everyone has to or should be forced to speak English," he said.
About 25 states have passed legislation making English the official language, according to U.S. English. But Eggington said what the group fails to point out is that some do nothing more than make that declaration. He called the proposed law in Utah the "most rigid and demanding" he has seen. He predicted it would challenged in court if it passes.
The initiative on the asset-forfeiture law calls for greater oversight in how agencies use the assets and cash they obtain. The state legislative auditor said earlier this that some counties are not handling the forfeitures well.The law would redirect seized assets to victims' restitution or the state school fund.
"By no means are we trying to take that tool away," said Caroline Romer, spokeswoman for Utahns for Property Protection.
Romer said the proposal has broad-based political support from conservative Rep. Bill Wright, R-Elberta to the ACLU.
Law enforcement and state prosecutors will likely provide the chief opposition to the initiative. "They'll probably say we're trying to give drug dealers a break, which is absolutely not the case," Romer said.