One day after Republican members of the Louisiana House Committee on Municipal, Parochial, and Cultural Affairs passed a bill that would prohibit any municipality from altering, removing, relocating, destroying, rededicating, or renaming any public structure, plaque, statue, monument, school, street, bridge, park, or area named after any notable person who has ever served in any war in American history, unless it is first approved in an election, they approved eliminating nearly $150,000 in funding to the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs.
Those cuts, according to VA Undersecretary Homer Rodgers, would result in the closure of two relatively new veterans’ cemeteries in Leesville and Rayville and require the state to return approximately $10 million in federal funding. Undersecretary Rodgers explained that because both cemeteries are under five years old, they are not yet self-sustaining. When Democratic State Rep. Sam Jones proposed an amendment to restore funding for those cemeteries, it was quickly rejected. Republican State Rep. Cameron Henry called the amendment a “scare tactic.”
House Republicans have been scrambling to determine how to plug a $440 million budget shortfall without implementing any of the modest tax increases on businesses proposed by Gov. John Bel Edwards and without affecting the TOPS program, which provides free college tuition to any high school student in Louisiana who graduates with a 2.5 GPA and a 22 on the ACT and which disproportionately benefits middle to upper-middle class white families in the state. Students from households making more than $100,000 a year account for 41.2% of TOPS recipients, and 20.4% of TOPS recipients are from households that make at least $150,000 a year, according to a recent analysis by the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance.
In order to fully fund TOPS, Republican legislators propose eliminating “mental health programs, Zika prevention, hospice services and prescription medication assistance — across the state,” according to The Times-Picayune. It now also appears that funding for veterans’ cemeteries must be added to that list.
The debate over veterans’ cemeteries is particularly ironic considering the heated discussion that occurred the day before regarding HB 71, Republican State Rep. Thomas Carmody’s bill to prevent municipalities and government agencies in Louisiana from removing “war” monuments. Carmody’s bill was offered in direct response to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s controversial efforts to remove four Confederate and white supremacist monuments, the first of which was hauled off on April 24th, and most of the testimony in support of Carmody’s bill centered on the actions underway in New Orleans.
Watch the hearing by clicking here. Begin at around the 80 minute mark.
In the committee hearing, legislators listened to testimony from a handful of conservative military veterans and activists, including former U.S. Senate candidate Col. Rob Maness, all of which emphasized the need for the government to respect and honor the men and women who had served in battle.
The very first witness, however, a white woman from Shreveport named Brenda O’Brock of Louisiana Power Coalition, began by lecturing legislators on how they should “grow up” about this issue. That eventually led to a testy exchange with Democratic Rep. Pat Smith, an African-American woman from Baton Rouge, who excoriated O’Brock. Quoting:
Mrs. O’Brock, I want no disrespect here. But at 71, I’m grown up. I’ve grown up in a cloud of racism. I have family members that fought in World War II, and my daughter is recently- well, not recently- an Air Force veteran, who had to endure many different kind of things as an air force veteran.
But while you say, ‘Grow up,’ I really don’t see many people who look like you sitting out here who take to task those white supremacists who take on us, under the guise of racism. I don’t see many of you sitting out there, who look like you, who take to task Jeff Sessions, who says slavery was an era in our country. So, I’m saying that you say, ‘Grow up,’ but there’s so many other people who haven’t grown up, and we have to endure what they give us to endure and to defend who we are. So, growing up and having to see how history has changed. And when you talk about going backwards Col. Maness, we have gone backwards.
We’ve gone backwards in this country, because today, too many people can’t walk down the street without being called ugly names, without being called things they were called in the 40s and the 50s when I was growing up.
So, I understand where you’re coming from, but you’re going to have to not do it on one side. You’re going to also have to stand up for what’s right for everybody. And you’re going to have to take to task those individuals who don’t stand up for what you might believe in. So, I’m making a statement and not asking a question. So if you want to respond, I would appreciate it.
Mrs. O’Brock from Shreveport did not disappoint. “Yes, I would like to respond,” she said to Rep. Smith. “Yes, you do need to get over it.”
And at that point, Mrs. O’Brock was reprimanded for disrespecting Rep. Smith. O’Brock attempted to recover, weakly, by – among other things- apologizing that Pat Smith had ever been disenfranchised and comparing her own personal struggles with the struggles that others have endured due to racism.
Col. Rob Maness then compared the taunting that white supremacists and Confederate apologists had been receiving in New Orleans with the police brutality unleashed against African-Americans during the Civil Rights movement and the struggles of students like Ruby Bridges.
The whole thing was, in a word, absurd.
But what is most absurd isn’t really the juxtaposition of House Republicans championing the statues to dead Confederate generals as if they are sacrosanct on one day and cutting funding for veterans’ cemeteries on the very next day. What is most absurd is that no one quite appreciated how unbelievably dumb Rep. Carmody’s bill actually is. Here are the relevant two sections and the amendment (titled as Section C):
According to the plain language of this bill, a city cannot demolish a dangerous bridge named after Abraham Lincoln or George H. W. Bush unless it holds an election and the proposition to do so is approved.
This bill would similarly prevent a city like Alexandria- whose streets are almost entirely named after notable historical figures and war veterans- from making significant alterations to roadways- alterations that would directly conflict with the imperative to preserve these roadways- without a city-wide vote and approval.
Cities couldn’t rededicate even small portions of a street named after someone else, perhaps someone who is even more important than the original honoree, without a popular vote.
And what would happen if a major employer wants to move into a city but requires the closure and dedication of a portion of a street named Pershing or Patton or Powell? That’d require another election.
Notably, the bill doesn’t require elections each and every time cities decide to honor an historical figure, only when they decide to change the name or make alterations to the property.
What would happen if- as a hypothetical- someone like Bill Cosby had served in the Vietnam War and was honored by having the city’s library named after him (with permission from the legislature)? And then, years later, the public discovers this man has been accused of raping 58 different women? Sorry to break the news, but that would also require an election.
It is pretty easy to see how this could lead to astronomical costs: Holding an election- any election- is expensive.
Yet these same legislators can’t find $150,000 to save veterans’ cemeteries.