This story was updated April 17, 2018, at 11:02 p.m. with more information.
NASHVILLE — The Tennessee House on Tuesday approved the state's $37.5 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2018-2019.
The vote was 87-5. Senators are expected to take up the budget today as lawmakers work to complete their annual session next week.
But this year's debate on the appropriations bill turned ugly as majority Republican members stripped a $250,000 grant to Memphis intended to help the city begin planning its bicentennial celebration.
Democrats charged the amendment by Republican Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, was in retaliation for Memphis city officials spiriting away a statute of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a park. The city transferred two parks, one with the Forrest statue and the other of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, to a private nonprofit group, thus doing an end run around the state's Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, which sought to prevent removal of historic monuments.facebook
Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who is black, called the GOP budget amendment maneuver "ugly" and "unChristian-like."
Another black lawmaker, Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, went further.
"Let me not mince words. This is the most vile, racist — you can boo all you want — but let's call it what it is," Parkinson said as boos erupted from what appeared to be mostly white Republicans.
Parkinson said Memphians are "sickened" by the statues honoring Forrest, a slave owner and trader who was the Ku Klux Klan's first grand wizard. And he accused Republicans of revering Forrest "as if he was a god, as if he was an idol," with Memphis being punished "because we moved your god from our ground."
Republicans, such as Deputy House Speaker Steve McDaniel of Lexington, who authored the Heritage Protection Act, have been fuming all year over how to retaliate against Memphis.
Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who is white, noted he grew up in Memphis and continues to love the city. He pointed out that he helped remove a bust of Forrest from a niche just outside the House chamber, replacing it with a bust of Davy Crockett.
"I think the city of Memphis, like any other city in the nation, needs to, if not obey the law, at least obey the spirit of the law," McCormick chided Memphians. "And the law was very clear and they got smart lawyers to figure it out."
Hill's amendment diverts the $250,000 grant to Memphis to the Department of Tourism. He called it a "common practice in the budgetary process." It simply "re-allocates" money, Hill argued. He countered that critics "may try to ascribe motives to me that are not true. That is your right, I suppose."
But Hill said "my faith is secure. I love everyone, whether you love me or not. But at the end of the day, calling people racist and unChristian does not advance any meaningful debate."
The amendment passed on a 56-31 vote.
House Republicans and Democrats later united to defeat a proposed amendment by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancast, which sought to strip out $3 million that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam included in the budget to begin funding a program that helps interested school districts with buying safety-restraint-equipped school buses.
The money stemmed from efforts by Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, to get state help on safer buses following the deadly 2016 crash of a Woodmore Elementary School bus in Chattanooga, which killed six children and injured more than two dozen others.
Weaver had fought a Favors/Gardenhire bill last year, which sought to require that new buses come equipped with safety restraints. She wanted to redirect it toward substance abuse treatment. Weaver's amendment failed on a 20-67 vote, with many Republicans voting against the Transportation Subcommittee chairman.
Following the amendment hoopla, House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, described the annual spending plan's benefits with money for economic and community development, pay raises for state employees and teachers and boosts to the state's Rainy Day Fund.
It was the last budget presentation by Sargent, who is retiring after this year.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.