NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Republican-dominated House in Tennessee voted Tuesday to punish the city of Memphis for removing Confederate monuments by taking $250,000 away from the city that would have been used for a bicentennial celebration next year.
The retaliation came in the form of passage of a last-minute amendment attached to the House appropriations bill that triggered heated debate on the House floor and stinging rebukes from lawmakers from Memphis.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson began to call the amendment vile and racist before being cut off by boos from fellow lawmakers.
“You can boo all you want but let’s call it for what it is,” the Memphis Democrat said.
Last year the city of Memphis, which is majority black, was able to find a legal loophole to get rid of two Confederate statues and a bust by selling city parks to a nonprofit, which swiftly removed the monuments. Statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest were taken down that night following a City Council vote.
Forrest was a general in the Confederacy, a slave owner and a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. A bust of a Confederate soldier was also removed.
Parkinson said he was sick of how fellow lawmakers revered Forrest “as if he was God, as if he was an idol.”
“You remove money from a city because we removed your God from our grounds,” Parkinson said.
A Republican lawmaker from Chattanooga who grew up in Memphis told fellow lawmakers that he loved the city but this was about obeying at least the spirit of a law to protect historical monuments.
“And the law was very clear, and they got smart lawyers to figure out how to wiggle around the law, and I think that’s what the issue is,” said Rep. Gerald McCormick.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland responded Wednesday, saying the city followed the letter of the law. He also praised state lawmakers who stood up for Memphis.
The Tennessee Comptroller's Office ruled in February that the City of Memphis had acted within its legal authority to sell the park land to a nonprofit entity.
The amendment that stripped the money away from Memphis was sponsored by Matthew Hill, a Republican from Jonesborough.
“Today is a demonstration that bad actions have bad consequences, and my only regret about this is it’s not in the tune of millions of dollars,” Rep. Andy Holt, of Dresden, said of the punishment.
Another Memphis Democrat called the move to take away the money unchristian, hateful and unkind, and she said she was tired of lawmakers treating her city as if it wasn’t part of the state.
“I know some of you all would be happy if we gave the doggone part of the state to Arkansas,” Rep. Raumesh Akbari said. “Arkansas would gladly take us. But I’ll tell you something: I don’t support this, and I think if you do it you’re being ugly. It’s not fair. Memphis is a part of Tennessee. I didn’t even realize how much y’all disliked Memphis till I got to this Legislature.”
Senator Lee Harris, Democrat of Memphis issued the following statement:
“What the City of Memphis did by removing the Confederate monuments was lawful, according to those who have looked closely at the matter. Yesterday’s action by some Republicans in the Tennessee House to cut some funding - $250,000 - from Memphis as retribution was wrong.
“We should all be worried by the action of Republicans in control of the Tennessee House, as this sets up a dangerous precedent. It means that local elected officials can be punished for lawful decisions that end up rubbing powerful elected officials in Nashville the wrong way.
“It means we are at a point in our state, when our lop-sided 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 $250K 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.”
The amendment passed along with the $37.5 million budget.
News of the state budget measure made the New York Times and prompted both praise and outcry on social media. Some called for citizens to raise the money lost for the city's bicentennial.
A GoFundMe page has already been started to replenish the lost funds and had raised about $2,500 by Wednesday morning. The founder of the account says she plans to present the money to the city in the form of a restricted grant to be used for the bicentennial.
The House voted four times on Amendment 5 to the budget bill. Click here to see how lawmakers voted.