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VOL. 133 | NO. 49 | Thursday, March 8, 2018

Monuments Bill Would Establish Felony Charge for Some Votes

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – A state legislator is set to seek the attorney general’s advice on legislation enabling the state to charge local elected officials with a felony for “knowingly” casting votes in conflict with state law.

“I think it would be in our best interest for us to get an attorney general opinion on this,” said state Rep. Sherry Jones.

The Nashville Democrat opposes legislation designed to crack down on governmental bodies for allegedly violating the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act or sanctuary city laws.

Jones called legislation by Rep. Dawn White the most “ridiculous” bill she’s ever seen because it would fine politicians for their votes and subject them to indictment and removal from office.

Proposed legislation in the General Assembly would make it a felony for “knowingly” casting votes in conflict with state law. (Daily News File/Houston Cofield)

The measure, written in reaction to the Memphis City Council’s action in removing three Confederate statues, passed the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on a voice vote Tuesday, March 6, after a short but spirited debate in which some legislators asked whether the state has other felonies punishable by fines only. Legislators could think of at least one instance dealing with the use of boats.

Jones was the only subcommittee member to vote in opposition.

“I’m sure that three-quarters of the people (in the Legislature) knowingly vote against things that the federal government says you have to do or for things that the federal government says you can’t. So it’s a ridiculous piece of legislation,” Jones said.

White said afterward she doesn’t believe the Legislature would be overstepping its bounds by punishing elected officials for their votes. She pointed out state law already addresses sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants and the Heritage Protection Act, which took effect in 2016 and was amended in 2017. It requires a two-thirds vote of the Tennessee Historical Commission for waivers to alter or move items such as monuments deemed part of the state’s military history.

The Murfreesboro Republican, who is seeking a state Senate seat set to come open this year, said she amended her bill to add the word “knowingly” to deal with cases in which local elected bodies might vote in conflict with state law.

“And you know what, we have to have law and order no matter what level of government it is, so I believe Shelby County and Davidson County both voted this past year (against state laws) and Tennessee Code Annotated explained exactly what the law was,” White said.

Nashville’s Metro City Council considered legislation putting it in violation of federal immigration laws, but the ordinances were dropped.

Shortly after the Memphis City Council approved the December sale of two city parks to the nonprofit Memphis Greenspace Inc., monuments of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Health Sciences Park and two other Confederate monuments in Memphis Park were removed the same night and put away for safekeeping. The City Council took action after the Tennessee Historical Commission turned down its request for a waiver to remove the monuments.

Members of the Forrest family and the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a complaint over the removal of the statues, and the Tennessee Historical Commission is set to hold a hearing to determine whether the city violated state law.

A State Comptroller’s report found Memphis did not violate the state’s open meetings act or its own purchasing rules, though it did say the city failed to look closely enough at the nonprofit organization’s finances to decide whether it had the financial backing to buy the property. Greenspace bought the parks for $1,000 each.

Towns ready to act

State Rep. Joe Towns, who opposes several bills considered retribution toward Memphis, said the Historical Commission shouldn’t have the final word on whether Memphis might have broken state law.

The Memphis Democrat also said he will ask for an attorney general’s opinion if Jones doesn’t seek one.

“You can’t tell people how to vote. To me, that’s unconstitutional,” Towns said. “Voting becomes a felony if it doesn’t agree with their draconian methods?”

Towns called the bill “outlandish” and “flawed” and pointed out legislators vote against federal laws “all the time.” He predicted the city of Memphis would have to take its case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

“Mayor Strickland and the City Council have not violated any state laws concerning the Heritage Protection Act or immigration, so we have no reason to weigh in on this bill,” Kyle Veazey, a spokesman for Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, said.

Rep. Michael Curcio, a Dickson Republican who serves on the House Criminal Justice Committee, said he’s not certain the measure is constitutional even though he voted to send the bill on and would drop his backing if the attorney general says it’s unconstitutional.

“It would be a difficult thing in this General Assembly if we were found to be felons for votes that we took,” Curcio said. “However, the General Assembly created the state municipalities. The states created the federal government, so I’ve asked those questions, I had those concerns. I think somebody that has a different role to play in this situation than I do needs to weigh in.”

“Loophole” bill moves

Despite challenges from most of the Shelby County legislative delegation, the path appears to be clear for bills designed to keep cities and counties from sidestepping the Heritage Protection Act.

Another measure by White passed the House State Government Committee with little debate on its merit, other than concerns about whether movement of President James K. Polk’s grave would have to go before the Historical Commission if it is transferred to private property in Columbia from the State Capitol grounds.

White’s measure, which heads next to the House Calendar and Rules Committee, would prohibit cities and counties from selling, donating or transferring historical memorials to circumvent waiver requirements under the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.

White said the bill, which is different from another piece of legislation being sponsored by Rep. Steve McDaniel, would “close the loophole” in the Heritage Protection Act and preempt local governments from finding a way to get around the state law.

McDaniel, a Parkers Crossroads Republican, authored the 2016 act and said he was upset with Memphis taking action “in the dark of night.” He has a caption bill prepared to stop similar actions by city governments, though he has said it would not be retroactive.

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

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