The Senate endorsed English as Missouri's "common" language Tuesday when it gave first-round approval of a bill that would allocate grants to local agencies to teach English.
For the past several years, lawmakers have debated legislation that would restrict state documents and activities to English. But this year's bill, merely defines English as the state's common language and establishes a program to assist new Missouri residents to learn English.
"The legislation goes to the very core and very fabric of society," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico. "America is not a society of a common culture, rather a society made by a diverse population."
English, Maxwell said, is a common thread in the United States and should be used to integrate the population of adults and children. "The sooner they can speak English, the better opportunities they have to get jobs," Maxwell said.
But critics charged the bill did not go far enough in assuring that English would be the only "official" language for the state.
Sen. Larry Rohrbach, R-California, who voiced strong opposition several times during the four-hour debate, argued the bill would do the exact opposite.
"I think it could breed some resentment among folks who may compete for their jobs," Rohrback said. "And then they are required to pay taxes for the program."
Opponents argued the bill would regulate local agencies and force individuals to learn English.
"I kind of have this thing about Freedom," Rohrbach said. Maxwell, however, said the bill would not be mandatory but would assist local schools, associations, churches and not-for-profit groups in teaching English to willing students.
The bill also came under fire from opponents who said it would not be necessary under current Missouri law.
"No case was made that services weren't already available," Rohrback said. "Folks have been immigrating into this country for a long time and learning English. I think they (supporters) are just trying to satisfy the English-only crowd."
Supporters of the bill said the program would be a bonus, but still necessary.
"What we're merely spending money on is beneficial," said Sen. Steve Ehlmann, R-St. Charles. "I think it's worthwhile to spend the money." That money, however, is seen by opponents as just another government program regulating an existing learning process.
"Now we're going to throw government money at something we've already been doing," Rohrbach said. Foreign-born residents are common in cities like St. Louis and Kansas City, but proponents pointed to rural communities that have started to see more non-English speaking residents moving in.
"For those communities who have not had strains of the finance that non-English people bring, this will help bring resources into schools, hospitals and the workplace," Maxwell said.
Local agencies could voluntarily apply for state grants to establish English classes, but the state would not pick up the whole tab, Maxwell said.
"I think it will relieve what they can't afford," he said. "This is not a fully funded program but a partnership in process. Maxwell said an estimated $2 million to $3 million could be needed to fund programs statewide, but local agencies might be able to chip in more of the money.