By Scott Rothschild
Topeka - The Kansas House on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill making English the official language of Kansas, after the measure was amended to include a possible $500,000 to help fund English classes for adult immigrants.
Melinda Lewis, an immigrant advocate, opposed the original `official language' bill, but said the inclusion of funds to help people learn English would make the legislation better.
"It's more an English promotion bill now instead of an anti-other languages bill," said Lewis, director of public advocacy and research at El Centro Inc. in Kansas City, Kan.
"Without the amendment, it was sending a a rather ugly and meaningless message," she said.
House Bill 2140 was approved 118-2. The House will likely give final approval Wednesday to send the bill to the Senate for consideration.
The proposed $500,000 competitive grant for adult education English classes was placed in the bill by an amendment by state Rep. Sue Storm, D-Overland Park.
But the funds are not guaranteed and will only become a reality in the budget if later approved by the Legislature.
Rep. Don Myers, R-Derby, pushed English as the official state language, saying it would encourage immigrants to learn English and increase their employment opportunities.
"I consider this a workforce building bill, an economic development bill," Myers said.
Although making English the official language, the bill gives local and state agencies the flexibility to print or make available documents in other languages.
Opponents criticized the measure as meaningless, saying that English is already understood to be the common language of the state.
Rep. Thomas "Tim" Owens, R-Overland Park, said the bill was based in anti-immigrant feelings "born out of fear more than anything else" and would send out another "negative message" about Kansas.
Rep. Dale Swenson, R-Wichita, criticized debate over a "nearly empty" bill while more important issues went unresolved, such as expanding health care insurance.
Storm said the bill encouraged immigrants to learn English but provided no help in that direction.
"Let's put our money where our mouth is," Storm said in advocating for the $500,000 English instructional funds.
Storm said at various English language programs in her district there were large waiting lists. If approved, the $500,000 would also draw down $300,000 in federal funds, she said.
- Staff writer Scott Rothschild can be reached at 785-354-4222