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Malepeai’s words bring pause to Senate

The Idaho Senate has voted 20-15 in favor of SB 1172, declaring English to be the official language of the state of Idaho, in a debate that took a personal turn. “It’s not for shutting people out, but bringing people in,” Sen. Mel Richardson, R-Idaho Falls, lead sponsor of the bill, told the Senate. “When we speak a common language we are unified.”

Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, said quietly, “Looking around the chamber, I think I’m probably the only one that has English as a second language.” Malepeai recalled that his late father and his uncles served proudly in the U.S. military. “They spoke very, very broken English, but they were proud American Samoans,” Malepeai said.

As the immigration debate has built in this country, Malepeai said a business posted a sign saying, “You’re in America – speak English.” “I’m not sure my parents would feel comfortable walking into a business like that,” he said. Every Idaho county does its official business in English. So does every state agency. “Is there any question that English is the official language?” he asked. Legislation declaring an official language may seem straight-forward, he said. “But the unintended consequence is that sign – you’re in America, speak English. … It hurts the spirit when you see something like that.”

Malepeai said democracy and freedom are what unites all Americans. “That is what unifies people in this country – not the English language,” he said.

A hush fell in the Senate after Malepeai’s comments, and no one else debated the bill. Richardson, the bill’s lead sponsor, gave a brief closing debate. He said 28 states have passed laws declaring English to be the official state language. The bill requires all “transactions, proceedings, meetings or publications issued, conducted or regulated by … the state of Idaho, or any county, city or other political subdivision in this state” to be in English. It includes exceptions for matters of public health and safety, promoting tourism and economic development, non-English phrases “as part of communication otherwise in English,” and for libraries’ foreign language materials.

“We have to be able to talk to each other,” Richardson said.

The vote was surprisingly close, for a bill that’s co-sponsored by 18 legislators, including nine senators. The bill now moves to the House.


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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