VOL. 133 | NO. 85 | Friday, April 27, 2018
Memphis Lawmakers React to House Pulling $250,000 Bicentennial Funding
By Sam Stockard
NASHVILLE – The state House of Representatives declined to reconsider its decision to pull $250,000 from Memphis to fund a bicentennial celebration as it stiffened penalties this week for potential violations of the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.
Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, called for the funding matter to be reconsidered, but his request drew no support or debate in the closing days of the 100th General Assembly.
“This legislation was motivated by the circumstances in Memphis and Shelby County whereby good lawyers were able to find a way, a legal way, to move the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue,” Hardaway said during floor debate Tuesday, April 24. “I’m also of the mind that this legislation is geared towards trying to prohibit or to punish any actions similar to what the city of Memphis was able to achieve.
“This is called closing a loophole … and if this loophole is closed and if the sponsor finds that it’s a suitable closing of the loophole, I would suggest that the rationale that (removed) the $250,000 out of the budget would now no longer be valid and that that should be revisited.”
Sponsored by Rep. Steve McDaniel, a Parkers Crossroads Republican, the amended bill would toughen the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act by prohibiting the sale or transfer of public property containing a memorial falling under the act. McDaniel acknowledged early in the session he was trying to find a “loophole” to stop local governments from doing what Memphis did when it sold two public parks to the nonprofit Memphis Greenspace, which promptly removed statues of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The Tennessee Historical Commission refused to grant a waiver for the city to remove those monuments, so city leaders said they found a method to follow state law and still have them taken down. Numerous Republican legislators said the city violated the spirit of the law and sponsored several pieces of legislation designed either to punish Memphis or stop other cities from following suit.
McDaniel’s bill, the only one of those remaining, also says local governments that violate the act would be prohibited from receiving grants from the Department of Economic and Community Development for five years.
Despite acknowledging the bill was spurred by Memphis’ actions, McDaniel said his bill would not be retroactive.
“As far as I’m concerned, that’s in the court system now,” McDaniel said.
The legislation provides what McDaniel called a “very good rationale” for denying state Economic and Development Department funds to local governments. Yet he said he saw no link between Memphis applying for grants dealing with the Memphis megasite and possible future actions dealing with the Heritage Protection Act.
The matter dealing with the December 2017 removal of the statues went to Davidson County Chancery Court after members of the Forrest family and Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a complaint. The chancellor sent the matter to the Tennessee Historical Commission to determine whether Memphis violated state law. But no hearing date has been scheduled.
Deputy Speaker McDaniel, who is leaving the Legislature at the end of this session after 30 years, ultimately said he believes all of the House members want to preserve history.
“We just have different approaches about how we might see that and go about that,” he said.
Change of tune
It was a conciliatory moment of sorts for McDaniel, Hardaway and the Shelby County delegation, after McDaniel pushed an amendment last week stripping $250,000 from the city of Memphis for its bicentennial celebration.
McDaniel’s bill was the only one remaining from legislative outrage over Memphis’ removal of the Confederate monuments. But the removal of money created more of a firestorm than any of those, even though Democrats weren’t expecting the money to be placed in the $37.5 billion budget’s amendment process.
A USA Today Nashville report quoted anonymous sources who said the money was put into the budget only to be jerked out so the Republican-controlled House could make an example out of Memphis.
McDaniel and House members who control the budget say publicly that’s not the case.
“No, we just kept looking and we finally found something that would send the message that some of us wanted to send,” said McDaniel, who urged Rep. Matthew Hill of East Tennessee to sponsor the legislative move to pull the money away from Memphis. Hill argued the money should be diverted to the Tennessee Department of Tourism, instead of to Memphis, because cities across the state hold festivals and don’t receive such funding.
And, according to the same report, House Majority Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams said Republicans opted to put the money in the budget because of the respect they hold for Rep. Karen Camper, the Memphis Democrat who sought the funding.
Camper believes the move was a “last-ditch effort” by the Republican supermajority “to try to reprimand Memphis for what they perceived as bad behavior. So they saw an opportunity to seize the moment and they gutted it out of the budget.”
But whether they put the money in just to pull it away is a moot point. And the Senate version of the budget did not contain the money, and House members doubt it would have been approved in the upper chamber.
After being “taken aback” initially, Camper says she came to terms with the situation and believes losing the $250,000 was a “good sacrifice” to keep the Shelby County delegation in the 111th General Assembly from having to deal with more bills targeting Memphis.
“I don’t mind being the sacrificial lamb. We don’t have to deal with this next year. Members can have a clean slate and move on, and they slapped us on the wrist,” Camper siad.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson isn’t quite as kind, saying legislators shouldn’t waste their time playing such games because it makes them “look really, really foolish globally,” regardless of their intent. Not even Parkinson believes the money was installed in the budget just to teach Memphis a lesson. But at this point, it doesn’t really matter, he says.
“You still look silly, and your intentions still look racist, and your intentions still look cruel, your intentions still look like they’re filled with malice and toward your own citizenry in the state of Tennessee,” said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat.
Meanwhile, Memphis officials had no idea the money was being offered or removed until it happened, and even though they acknowledge the funding would have been helpful, they never asked the state to provide it and weren’t counting on it.
“This move should not have an impact on the city of Memphis’ joint bicentennial celebration with Shelby County in 2019, as this money was never in our budget,” Mayor Jim Strickland said. “The community stakeholders planning the joint city-county bicentennial will continue their work to plan an amazing celebration of our great city that has changed the world – and is still changing the world – with authenticity and soul, and with grit and grind.”
In regard to removal of “divisive” Confederate statues, Strickland continues to contend the city followed state law “down to the letter of it.”
Meanwhile, a GoFundMe account by University of Memphis graduate Brittney Block has raised more than $69,500 to offset the loss of the money.
Strickland sent Block a letter thanking her for her efforts and saying he is looking forward to working with her to ensure the money from the GoFundMe effort goes toward the bicentennial.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.