© 2019 New Mexico News Services 4-15-19
One town grapples with its history and its public memorials
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
New Mexico has had its share of statue controversies. During a recent history conference I heard how a Texas town handled a volatile public debate over a Confederate soldier.
In 1918 the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the statue, which stands atop an arch in front of the Denton County courthouse in Texas.
Except for the attention of pigeons, “it remained inconspicuous for 90 years,” said historian Lewis Toland, speaking Friday during a conference of the West Texas Historical Association.
The statue was offensive to Willie Hudspeth, an African American resident who complained to county commissioners. They ignored him for years.
After the Charleston church killings in 2015, other residents joined Hudspeth, and someone vandalized the arch by painting in red letters, “This is racist.” The discussion gained more momentum after the deadly Charlottesville white supremacist rally.
Denton’s soldier joined the list of the national Make It Right Projects, which targeted ten such monuments that should be removed. Make It Right leaders told the Denton Record-Chronicle they had no intention of being outside agitators and simply wanted to support Hudspeth, connect him to others with similar goals, and help the public understand the statues’ part in systemic white supremacy.
Descendents of Confederate soldiers defended their right to honor the sacrifice and military service of an ancestor, and historians weighed in that the statue was a remnant of the town’s past.
Peaceful Denton saw several protests – one with law enforcement sharpshooters on top of buildings around the square keeping an eye on unarmed protesters. One counter protester brandished a loaded AR-15 assault rifle as he argued with Hudspeth.
In 2017, the same year city workmen unceremoniously removed Robert E. Lee from a park in Dallas, 40 miles away, the Denton County Commission appointed the Confederate Memorial Advisory Committee to determine the statue’s fate. The committee held 14 meetings plus public input sessions during 2017 and 2018.
The crux of the discussions, Toland said, was whether the statue honored the confederacy or the soldiers. If it honored the confederacy, it honored an ideology that included an economy based on slavery. They decided that this statue of a youth holding a gun honored confederate soldiers, many of whom didn’t subscribe to an ideology but fought because they were drafted.
The meetings were open to the public, and local people came to watch the committee’s polite and civil discussions. Members participated in good faith, each adding their own experience. They would say later that chairman John Baines led the committee with respect and dignity.
One Hispanic member, who supported keeping the statue, said they should condemn slavery but not soldiers. Another Hispanic member said, “No amount of lipstick will hide what the Confederate soldiers fought for.”
A third member noted that most millennials opposed the statue and said he considered it divisive. An African American member said the statue was an opportunity to educate people about their history.
Baines himself wanted to remove the statue but then came up with the idea to modify the statue by adding historical context in the form of kiosks with videos about the history of slavery, information on the Confederacy, and a large plaque denouncing slavery. He also proposed posting the names of all veterans from Denton County.
During the final meeting, members initially voted 10 to 5 to keep the monument, but with more discussion of Baines’ modifications, the vote was 12 to 3 to keep the monument.
County commissioners unanimously approved the plan. So, while confederate symbols come down across the nation, Denton will keep its soldier. For now. This may be a continuing discussion.
Toland concluded: “We don’t run from our history because we think it’s ugly and unpleasant.”
Sherry Robinson photo
© 2019 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES 4-15-19
The capital outlay secret
By Merilee Dannemann
Triple Spaced Again
Every year, the Legislature divides up a pot of money known as capital outlay, for one-time expenses such as construction, repair, and purchases of equipment. This year the total has approached a billion dollars.
The process of dividing the money is done behind the scenes, out of public view. Open government advocates have been ranting about this secrecy for the last few years.
Since New Mexico’s capital outlay structure is designed largely to provide bragging rights to legislators, the secrecy seems absurd.
But more absurd, and far more important, is the method used to divide up the money, which has received national recognition for its stupidity.
The process goes like this: legislators submit wish lists of projects to be considered for funding. Each legislator’s list is probably longer than what can realistically be funded. Legislators know some of their requests will be chopped off.
Meanwhile, the finance committees are calculating how much money in total will be available. When the numbers are crunched, the projects selected for final approval are packaged into one or two long and detailed bills. This year the main bill was Senate Bill 280.
You can read every legislator’s original list on the Legislature’s website (nmlegis.gov).
Somewhere between the submission of those lists and the final legislation, decisions are being made about what to fund and what to cut. That’s the big secret. When the final legislation comes out, it’s not clear which legislator’s allocation paid for which projects or how it was decided.
Here is where this lack of transparency gets mixed up with the bigger issue, the formula for dividing the money, which is unwritten and unofficial, but a hallowed New Mexico tradition.
Of all the available capital outlay money, the governor gets one third. One third is divided among the senators and another third is divided among House members. Each legislator gets a few local projects, and sometimes a group of legislators fund something jointly, but because of this method, the state can’t pool the money to do big ambitious things that would probably be more beneficial in the long run. Reform advocates claim this shortsighted method of dividing the money has been a significant factor in holding New Mexico back. I agree.
Those local projects are not merely pork. They may be repairs to schools or public buildings, upgrades to historic sites, water or infrastructure projects or other items that add value or enhance public safety. Small towns may have no other source of funds.
For some legislators, capital projects are the best way to show their constituents what they’ve been doing and demonstrate tangible accomplishments. Some voters may not appreciate that the real work of the legislative session is the hours of tedious committee hearings studying and voting on more complicated but possibly not very interesting legislative issues.
Back home after the session, legislators are free to claim credit for the projects they funded. Or, whoops, according to legislators’ surprisingly candid comments at one committee hearing, they might fudge a bit and claim credit for a project that got more funding from their colleague in the adjacent district. That’s one reason for keeping the process confidential.
Some projects on the original lists were trivial and got listed only to make a particular constituent happy. It’s easier to cut those projects if nobody is watching.
Another justification is the line item veto – to protect projects from a vindictive governor who can kill them out of spite. However, the secrecy trick didn’t work under former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. As my colleague Sherry Robinson wrote last year, Martinez axed many projects located in the districts of Democrats.
I’m less concerned about the secrecy issue than about the bigger issue of how the money gets divided. The practice of giving every legislator a sliver of the pie is more than a little antiquated for a state struggling to catch up in the 21st century.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.
Columns appear here a week after they're sent to newspaper subscribers.