Haslam faces 'monumental' decisions on two controversial bills

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the 76th annual Meeting and Luncheon of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau at the Chattanooga Convention Center Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Haslam talked about the tourism and hospitality industry's force as an economic driver throughout Hamilton County and Tennessee.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam says he is withholding judgment for now on what actions he will take on two controversial monument bills passed by Tennessee lawmakers this year until thoroughly studying the actual legislative language.

One bill passed by Republicans in the Republican-led 110th General Assembly, which wrapped up its annual work Wednesday, is aimed at Memphis - or any city that attempts to follow Memphis' lead - when it comes to removal of statutes or other memorials to Confederate figures.

A second bill also passed in the waning hours of the session calls for the State Capitol Commission to erect a new monument on the state Capitol grounds addressing abortion.

It would be called the "Tennessee Monument to Unborn Children, In Memory of the Victims of Abortion: Babies, Women and Men."

Both bills have generated national attention.

With regard to the Confederate monuments legislation, Republican lawmakers all session were furious with Memphis officials, who in their view violated the spirit of the Tennessee Heritage Act by spiriting away statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from two city parks.

While the law sought to prevent such actions, officials in the black-majority city squeezed both Davis and Forrest, a slave trader and the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan, through a loophole.

They transferred the park properties where the monuments were located to a newly created nonprofit corporation which then had them removed.

The new legislation prevents cities from selling or transferring property with historic statues and memorials unless they have the OK from the Tennessee Historical Society or courts.

Haslam told reporters Friday that "typically we have a position on legislation as it works its way through" the legislative process.

"Because that one didn't work it's way through during the normal course, I don't think we ever actually had a position, so I will see."

A Republican and history buff himself, the governor said that when it comes to the "Memphis situation I think the unique thing there is Memphis owned that park. And I kind of come back to whoever owns property should be able to decide what happens on it."

With regard to the "Tennessee Monument to Unborn Children," which was batted back and forth between the House and Senate with language tweaks until Wednesday night, Haslam said "I need to see what the final language" is.

"A lot of those things like that, we first check to make certain are there any constitutional issues. If not, if it's one of those that we didn't take a position on, we typically sign it if there are no constitutional issues.

"I think we were deferred on that, subject to the final language, as I remember," Haslam added.

That usually means unless there is a legal problem, the governor is likely to sign it.

The governor said it would be inaccurate to say he was closely looking at vetoing one or both bills.

Governors can sign, veto or allow bills to become law without their signatures.

Many Republican lawmakers had a bee in their collective bonnet over what they saw as Memphis' open defiance of their efforts to preserve legitimate Tennessee history, good or bad, and had searched all session long for a way to punish the city.

The House stripped out a proposed $250,000 expenditure from the budget that would have helped fund planning for Memphis' upcoming bicentennial celebration next year.

Meanwhile, the "Monument to Unborn Children" also generated plenty of fierce debate. Anti-abortion proponents of the bill cited existing memorials condemning slavery and honoring victims of the Holocaust. Their argument was both slavery and the slaughter of millions in Europe were the result of people being treated as less than human and they see abortion in the same light.

The bill does not order the State Capitol Commission to erect the monument but calls on members to do so. Much of the hold-up on the bill at the end was to tell the State Capitol Commission they'd like to have the monument without trying to order it to be erected, which some thought could be legally problematic.

"It still uses relatively squirrely language in that it 'calls for as opposed to 'directs,' because the legislature does not use the language to direct what happens on the Capitol grounds," said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, who opposed the bill.

"I think the ball is in the Capitol Commission's court, and I hope that it doesn't do something that results in constitutional court challenges and and using a public space to advance an obvious political agenda."

Monuments were on the minds of GOP lawmakers in another way as well.

Following a fierce debate earlier in the session, Republican lawmakers voted to move the tomb of President James K. Polk and his wife, Sarah Childress Polk, which is located on the Capitol grounds, to Columbia, Tenn.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.