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Georgia weighs constitutional amendment making English official language
Josh McKoon 2018.jpg
Josh McKoon

Should English be the constitutionally enshrined official language of Georgia?

Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has proposed a bill doing just that. Senate Resolution 587 would make English the official first language of Georgia and prohibit the state from using non-English communication in all but nine situations laid out in the bill.

The bill, which stalled in the 2016 General Assembly session when McKoon first introduced it, cleared the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday with a non-unanimous recommendation that it be approved by the Senate.

His proposal has attracted heated criticism from Democrats and advocates for Latinos and other minorities in Georgia, but McKoon argues that an English-only policy promotes learning of the unofficial but natural language in the United States.

“Your non-native English-speaking population tends to adopt English at a more rapid rate, and I don’t think there’s any debate on this question: Conversance in English is really the key to economic mobility and prosperity in our country and in our state,” McKoon said.

Butch Miller
Butch Miller
Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said on Monday that while polls show popular support for an “official English” policy, “there are certain issues that require multiple languages — it might be health care, public safety, judicial proceedings, instructional services.”

However, Miller noted that “you can’t deny the economic, social, the overall benefit of speaking English.”

And McKoon’s bill is making news just after the Hall County Elections Board rescinded a 2017 vote aiming to establish Spanish-language ballots in the county. Proponents of bilingual ballots in Hall are pointing to Gwinnett County and saying it’s only a matter of time before the federal government will force the county to adopt Spanish-language ballots.

The issue has attracted a great deal of local attention, and two members of the Elections Board, Republican Ken Cochran and Democrat Michelle Sanchez Jones, will study the costs of adopting bilingual ballots, which could be more than $100,000 during busy presidential election cycles.

And this month, Douglas Aiken, an avid watcher of local government and its budgets, approached the Hall County Board of Commissioners to encourage it to adopt a local official English ordinance.

“I would like to suggest that Hall County shall recognize and designate the English language to be the official, legal language to be utilized on all legal documents, signage and all other documents unless prohibited by law,” Aiken told the commission on Jan. 22, saying the county needed to get a handle on its policy before the issue would “jump up and bite you in the rear end.”

At the state level, the law is already on the books, but McKoon’s bill would make the law a constitutional amendment given what he says has been lax enforcement from state agencies — especially the Georgia Department of Driver Services.

“It reads a lot more like an urging resolution than it really does something with the force of law,” McKoon said of the existing law on Monday. “You’ve had state agencies — and the driver’s license issue is probably the best example — just ignore the statute.”

The original official English law was passed in 1996. The constitutional amendment explicitly prohibits the driver’s license exam from being given in any language other than English.

McKoon told The Times that his bill is driven by two motives: fiscal conservatism and a desire to benefit the entire community.

He said taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be spent “subsidizing the translation of official documents or paying for translators,” but also noted that encouraging new immigrants and residents to learn English improves their economic outcomes.

However, opponents of the bill say it’s bad for business and Georgians.

“The proposed bill is un-American and would negatively impact Georgia’s economy, wipe out opportunities for our state to attract potential economic powerhouses and betray the strong bonds that we have with our family members and neighbors from around the world who now call Georgia home,” said Sean Young, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, on Monday.

Young said it sends a message to people that Georgia is not a friendly place for immigrants and called it one of the legislature’s “Adios Amazon” bills.

Atlanta is one of 20 cities now vying to be the location of Amazon’s second headquarters. Lawmakers and activists alike have said social issue legislation and similar bills will deter Amazon from selecting Georgia no matter how strong its economic incentives for the internet retail giant.

“Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is of Cuban descent and recently gave $33 million for scholarships for Dreamers,” said Jerry Gonzalez, head of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. “In that announcement, Bezos mentioned his father arrived in this country at 16 years of age and spoke no English. Passing an English-only constitutional amendment would likely send a message to Amazon and to the world that Georgia is an unwelcoming state.”

McKoon dismissed these arguments, saying there’s “no evidence that businesses make these decisions based on anything other than the available workforce, the available infrastructure, the tax and regulatory policies currently in place, and how fat of an economic incentive check the state is willing to write them.”

The bill has a high bar to clear before the law could be made part of the state’s guiding document. Constitutional amendments require supermajority support in both the Georgia House and Senate, the governor’s signature and a victory in a statewide popular vote before they can be added.

Other senators that sponsored the bill include Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, and Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth.

“The nice thing about a constitutional amendment is if I’m wrong about all of that, then the voters get the final say in November if they don’t think it’s a good policy for Georgia,” McKoon said.