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VOL. 42 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 13, 2018

House spanks Memphis for statue removal, pulls $250K for celebration

By Sam Stockard

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Amid contentious debate Tuesday, the House of Representatives pulled $250,000 for Memphis’ bicentennial celebration from the state’s $37.5 billion budget plan as retribution for the removal of Confederate monuments from city parks.

The amendment passed in a 56-31 vote, even though numerous legislators pointed toward the significant economic impact the city has on Tennessee and the fact its residents were not involved in the City Council vote to sell the park property late in 2017. The funding will go to the Department of Tourism instead.

Rep. Steve McDaniel, a Parkers Crossroads Republican, explained the Memphis City Council took action to have three Confederate statues removed, including Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis, by selling city park property to a nonprofit agency, finding a way to get around the Heritage Protection Act.

“It was the city of Memphis that did this fully knowing it was not the will of the Legislature,” McDaniel said.

A State Comptroller’s report on the matter determined the Memphis City Council did not break any laws. Forrest family members and the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a lawsuit in Davidson County Chancery Court challenging the removal. The Tennessee Historical Commission is supposed to consider the matter sometime this year, after turning down a request by Memphis in 2017 to remove the monuments.

The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Matthew Hill, a Republican from East Tennessee, pointed out cities and counties across the state will be holding community celebrations without state tax dollars. He noted during debate he never made “disparaging” comments about Memphis.

The amendment upset members of the Shelby County delegation, including Memphis Democratic Rep. Karen Camper who said she worked “diligently” with leadership to put the money in the budget. She pointed out removing the money would punish all of Memphis and Shelby County, not just the City Council.

Rep. Raumesh Akabari, another Memphis Democrat, spoke even more pointedly.

“The amendment and the explanation is hateful, unkind, un-Christian-like and unfair,” Akbari said, adding she is sick of the Legislature treating Memphis as if it weren’t part of Tennessee.

Akbari, who is running for a state Senate seat this year, told House members she didn’t realize how much members of the Legislature disliked the city of Memphis until she won election to the House.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson called the move “the most vile, racist” thing he’s seen on the House floor, eliciting boos from the chamber.

The Memphis Democrat, an outspoken proponent of removing a Forrest bust from the State Capitol and the Forrest monument in Memphis because of the Confederate general’s history as a slave trader, continued, saying, “What makes me more sick is how this body reveres Nathan Bedford Forrest as if he was a God.”

However, members such as Rep. Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican who grew up in Memphis, argued that Memphis broke the spirit of state law in the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act by removing the monuments.

“They got some smart lawyers to figure out how to wiggle around the law,” McCormick said.

And Rep. Andy Holt, a Republican from Dresden, contended all cities that violate state laws should be punished.

“My only regret about this is that it’s not to the tune of millions of dollars,” Holt said, adding he believes the state has been “very generous” to Memphis.

He argued getting rid of statues, whether you agree with the life of Forrest or not, is wrong because it removes history, which is “what ISIS does.”

State Sen. Lee Harris castigated the House vote, saying political opponents of the city used state power to punish a “lawful” act and termed it as “retribution.”

“We should all be worried by the action of Republicans in control of the Tennessee House, as this sets up a dangerous precedent,” Harris said in a statement. “It means that local elected officials can be punished for lawful decisions that end up rubbing powerful elected officials in Nashville the wrong way.”

Harris, who is leaving the Senate this year to run for Shelby County mayor, said the House moves shows “we are at a point in our state, when our lopsided Republican government has decided it will openly punish political opponents and use government force to do it. We are headed for disaster.”

“It starts with a $250,000 financial penalty against the city. It might not be long before we have penalties against Memphis elected officials. Right after, someone will suggest elected officials should be forced from office or even jailed for their decisions or views. Disaster.”

If the House had approved the measure as part of its budget, the Senate would have conformed, even though the funds weren’t in the Senate budget bill, according to a spokesman for Harris.

A spate of bills surfaced during the 2018 session to avert local actions similar to the monument removal in Memphis and some of those remain alive.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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