ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers are moving forward with a proposal to prevent the state government from issuing non-English communications, with some exceptions.
By a non-unanimous voice vote, the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday approved Sen. Joshua McKoon's proposed constitutional amendment to name English as the state's "official language." State law already contains that designation, but McKoon, a Columbus Republican, said the law is not being properly enforced and the issue needs to be cleared up by revising the state constitution.
With the exception of some issues such as public health and safety, the government should be conducting its business only in English, McKoon said. The resolution wouldn't affect the languages used by individuals or private organizations. Schools also would be able to continue to teach foreign languages and employ other languages while teaching people English.
"This isn't infringing anyone's individual right," Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, said. "This is just how the government should do business."
Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson criticized the proposal. By forcing driver's license tests to be conducted in English, non-English speakers would be discouraged from getting their license, thereby leading to a rise in uninsured drivers, the Democrat said.
"I have Clarkston in my district," Henson said. "In Clarkston High School there are 59 different languages spoken. There are a lot of things — not just in terms of public health — that you want to communicate to various populations. And putting them in different languages is a public-positive thing."
He also argued that it would open the state up to numerous costly legal challenges.
Ten percent of Georgia's population was born in another country, according to the American Immigration Council. Three-quarters of those 1 million immigrants say they speak English "well" or "very well," the nonprofit advocacy group said.
More than 30 states have designated English as their first language, McKoon has said. But only about a third of those states have amended their constitutions to make English their official language.
Constitutional amendments require two-thirds approval in both chambers and voters' approval in a statewide election.
An identical measure passed the Senate in 2016 but died in the House.
Democrats were quick to object to McKoon's proposal, arguing it would limit immigrants' access to food stamps and the Childcare and Parent Services program. The measure is especially unwelcome at a time when the state is trying to persuade Amazon to build its second home in Atlanta, tweeted Democratic Rep. Bee Nguyen of Atlanta.
"I guess (the committee) didn't get the memo about Amazon's CEO, whose Cuban stepfather didn't speak any English when he came America," Nguyen wrote.