'Official' English bill gets new push and pushback

Geno's Steaks owner Joe Vento, who passed away in 2011, created controversy by requiring customers to "speak English" when ordering. Now the push is on for a bill that would require state and local governments to conduct all business in English.

HARRISBURG - Whether English should be the "official" language of Pennsylvania has legislators in the Capitol speaking, well, two different languages.

A push is on, again, for a bill that would require state and local governments to conduct all business in English and bar tax dollars from being spent on policies expressing a "preference" for languages other than English.

The bill's proponents, many of them conservative legislators, say it will save money while encouraging non-English-speaking immigrants to learn the language, which will help them assimilate and become more successful.

The measure, like those adopted in 31 other states, would "create a common, consistent means of government communication for a society that by the day is becoming increasingly diverse," its sponsor, Rep. Ryan Warner (R., Fayette), said at a hearing Monday that ended without action. "The role of government should be to encourage residents to learn English, not to use their money to support continual translation."

Detractors say the measure sends an unwelcoming and unnecessary message to people whose English skills may be limited. They believe the bill is rooted in an irrational fear of foreign culture, and that there is no actual practical need for the official designation.

"There is no doubt that English is the de facto language of government in Pennsylvania," Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in an interview. "It is not in danger at all."

Several Democratic legislators also expressed concerns about the message the bill sends to immigrants, who they noted are already motivated to learn English and embrace a new culture.

Rep. Leslie Acosta of Philadelphia called the bill "divisive" and "likely unconstitutional." At Monday's hearing, she began questioning one of the bill's supporters in Spanish - only to be cut off by the committee's chairman, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler).

A day later, Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Phila.) expressed his dissatisfaction in a different fashion.

He said he intended to introduce two resolutions. One would designate Spanish as the official language of Pennsylvania and the other would urge Congress to make it the official language of the United States.

"The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the nation's Hispanic population will reach 132.8 million within the next 30 years and constitute 30 percent of the overall population of the United States," Cruz said in a statement. "Pennsylvania needs to be progressive and forward-thinking in how we deal with this change, and instituting Spanish as our state's official language will put us well ahead of the curve."