Topeka — The Kansas House on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would make English the official language of Kansas.
But first, the measure was amended to include up to $500,000 to 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 improve the legislation.
"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 rather ugly and meaningless message."
House Bill 2140 was approved 118-2. The House is expected to give final approval today 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 become a reality in the budget only 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 work force-building bill, an economic development bill," Myers said.
English as Kansas' official language
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Although it makes 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 English already is understood to be the state's common language.
Rep. 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 that various English language programs in her district had long waiting lists. If approved, the $500,000 also would draw down $300,000 in federal funds, she said.