A state lawmaker’s plan to save the state money by sending government materials only in English may run afoul of the Civil Rights Act and federal guidelines, and could cost state agencies billions per year in federal dollars.
Republican Rep. Steve Smith of Maricopa sponsored HB2283, which would prevent state agencies from sending out information in Spanish.
Instead, publications would have to note that agencies are required to provide a notice of where to find the information in another language. A goal would be to save the state money on printing and shipping of required notices and documents.
The bill cleared the House Government Committee on Feb. 5 despite concerns raised by state agency representatives and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona that the bill could violate the Civil Rights Act and lead to Arizona losing federal money for vital programs such as the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
Were the bill to become law, the ACLU representatives said, it was ripe for litigation and could possibly cost the state billions in withheld federal funds.
Smith, an immigration and border hawk, said the bill would make sure state agencies are following the will of the voters when they overwhelmingly approved Proposition 103 in 2006. The proposition declared English as Arizona’s official language. It said the government must conduct official business in English with some exemptions including adhering to federal statutes on providing documents in other languages.
At the committee hearing, Smith dismissed concerns about losing federal money, saying Prop. 103 has been determined to be constitutional and the bill would only make sure the state is adhering to its own Constitution.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here. I’m taking the will of the people, what they told us with Prop. 103, and trying to codify that a little bit more because a lot of the agencies still have the flexibility to (send information in Spanish),” he said.
Smith said Arizona agencies spend millions unnecessarily on sending out information in Spanish at a time when the state can’t afford it.
His bill carves out an exemption for voting material. He said the exemption is meant for ballots only, and not meant to include publicity pamphlets such as the secretary of state’s election publicity pamphlets and the Clean Elections candidate guide, But officials from the Secretary of State’s Office said under their reading, those documents would be exempted from the English-only requirement.
All the information will still be available in Spanish and other languages, just not in mailboxes, Smith said.
“We don’t want to prevent people from getting (informational booklets) in those languages. All I’m saying we don’t need to print, bind and ship them… We can use Internet, we can use fax, we have copies available in the office, there’s a lot of ways we can get that information to people,” he said.
But civil rights lawyer Ellen Katz, litigation director for the William E. Morris Institute for Justice, said the bill is overly broad and does more than Smith suggests.
Katz argued before the committee that the bill would violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which states that no person may be excluded from participation in or denied benefits of or be discriminated against by an program receiving federal funds based on race color or national origin.
Although Prop. 103 designated English as Arizona’s official language, it carved out language to make sure the state Constitution didn’t violate federal law. A previous voter-approved version of the constitutional amendment was struck down by the state Supreme Court as a violation of free speech and equal protection of the laws.
Like that measure, this bill would be a bridge too far, Katz argued.
“Title VI is not trumped (by Prop. 103), you still have to follow the federal law,” Katz said.
She said the bill would violate U.S. Department of Justice requirements that agencies receiving federal funds provide important documents in other commonly used languages in the same manner as they are provided in English. The way the bill is written, she said, it would prohibit state agencies from following Department of Justice guidelines.
Jennifer Carusetta, the chief legislative liaison for AHCCCS, backed Katz up. She said sending information to English speakers and making people who speak other languages go online or to a government office to get information could violate both Department of Justice guidelines and the Civil Rights Act, and that implementing the measure could put federal funds for AHCCCS in jeopardy.
“Based on the Civil Rights Act, it’s really (about) the method of delivery, so if we are mailing it to an English speaking group, we need to be prepared to mail that same documentation to another group that speaks another prevalent language,” she said.
Currently, AHCCCS sends information in Spanish to those who identify as Spanish speakers or those who ask for it, she said, and information in English to others. They don’t automatically send out information in both languages, so there is no waste of taxpayer money.
Anjali Abraham, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, added First Amendment issues to the reasons the Legislature should reject the bill.
She testified before the committee and told lawmakers in an email that the bill presents serious First Amendment problems by hampering the ability of people with limited English proficiency and non-English speakers to access critical government materials. Therefore, she said, it denies them the right to petition government for a redress of grievances.
“If the Legislature wants to encourage the use of English as a matter of policy, it must do so in a narrowly tailored manner. HB2283 is not currently narrowly tailored,” she wrote.
Democratic Rep. Martin Quezada of Phoenix said that in addition to the First Amendment and Civil Rights Act issues with the bill, he has practical concerns that the state is disenfranchising Latinos.
“This is not about cost savings, it’s about creating a barrier between our government and one subset of community that we are supposed to be serving,” he said.
But Republican Rep. Warren Petersen of Gilbert said it’s not a partisan issue or a Latino issue, it’s a financial issue. He said the people of Arizona overwhelmingly believe the government should conduct its business in English, as evidenced by
Prop. 103, which won approval with more than 70 percent of voters.
The Latinos in his family don’t see it as an issue of nationality or background, he said.
“As I’ve talked to my mother-in-law, who’s a Spanish speaker, and as I’ve spoke to my sister-in-law, who just immigrated to this country less two months ago from Mexico, as I’ve spoken to them about this issue, it’s a non-issue,” Petersen said.
Quezada said it is a big issue for his grandparents, who are active voters in their 80s, who don’t use the Internet and speak Spanish at home.
“What this is clearly doing is creating a barrier between our state government and people like my grandparents, there’s no way around it. This is really a slap in the face to a certain population,” he said.