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Lawmakers question $5.3 million price tag on proposed Confederate flag display

Artist’s rendering of proposed Confederate battle flag display at the Relic Museum
Artist’s rendering of proposed Confederate battle flag display at the Relic Museum

State lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats – are questioning whether the state should pay $5.3 million to display the Confederate flag in a state museum.

The cost is too high, some say, citing pressure on state lawmakers to squeeze money into next year’s state budget for roads, education and unexpected damage caused by October’s historic flood.

The proposed flag exhibit also would cost $416,000 a year to rent additional space to house it.

“That is irresponsible when we have so much flood damage and we so have many crumbling roads,” said state Rep. Chris Corley, R-Aiken.

“Apparently, they’re going to fly it around every day in a private jet,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, criticizing the cost.

Seen as a symbol of heritage to some and racial divisiveness to others, the Confederate flag was removed from the State House grounds in July, a month after nine African-Americans were shot and killed during a Bible study in a Charleston church.

State lawmakers voted to furl the flag – pictured on a website in photographs of the accused killer – after appeals from Gov. Nikki Haley, national and state politicians, business leaders and the public.

Legislators also agreed to find the flag an appropriate display location at the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, appointing a commission to come up with a proposal. Last year, a state budget office estimated the display could cost between $1 million and $15 million.

On Thursday, a consultant offered the commission a first look at a $5.3 million proposal. The plan would display the flag, furled from the State House grounds, in a case. Behind it, a wall could display the names of S.C. troops killed in the Civil War.

The commission will hear more details about the proposed exhibit later this month. It must present a proposal to the General Assembly by Jan. 1.

Questions about cost

At least one top state budget writer has questions about the proposal.

At first glance, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said the $5.3 million estimated cost seems like “an awfully big price tag.”

But the Senate Finance chairman also said he wants more details on the cost estimate, including whether private donations could help pay for it.

Leatherman added he is fully committed to seeing the flag displayed in an “appropriate and respectful” way.

“What we’ll need to do is determine what appropriate and respectful means. That may mean different things to different people and different groups,” he said.

The House’s No. 2 officer said the proposal’s cost, which includes a plan to display other historic S.C. battle flags now in storage at the Relic Room, could be reasonable.

“With the state of our roads and the state of our schools, there’s no doubt there are areas that need an excess of $5 million,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, R-York.

“By the same token,” he added, a majority of House members agreed displaying the flag appropriately after it was furled “was important to a great number of South Carolinians.”

Pope said he hopes lawmakers consider proposals for displaying the flag while “keeping with that spirit.”

$5.3 million Proposed cost of displaying the Confederate flag in a state museum

Jan. 1 Deadline for presenting a proposal to state lawmakers

Heading for debate

If the proposal reaches the General Assembly, it likely will spark another contentious debate.

The proposal could have many supporters in the House, where several members fought to replace the flag with another Confederate-era banner or to nail down details about how much money would be committed to the displaying the flag at its new home. However, the House agreed that decisions about the cost and details of displaying the flag could wait until next year.

On Friday, Rutherford, the House Democratic leader, said the state has other responsibilities that need money.

“While I am all for putting it (the flag) in its proper place, we can do a lot better than $5.3 million. We’ve got people that are struggling” and flood victims that cannot get federal aid, Rutherford said, adding, “I’m not saying we should do nothing.”

One Democratic senator – all it takes to doom legislation in the General Assembly’s upper chamber – said he opposes the proposal altogether.

If the proposal moves forward, only private money should be used to pay for it, said Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington.

Malloy added debate on the proposal should wait until the state resolves more pressing problems, including funding education, roads, health care and flood needs.

The Charleston church massacre hit close to home in the state Senate. One of the nine slain at “Mother Emanuel” AME Church was its pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.

“Why are we going to have that discussion now?” said Malloy, noting accused killer Dylann Roof’s trial for the slayings has not begun. “You’re putting salt back on the wound.”

The proposal also has garnered opposition from an unlikely source.

Putting the flag in a frame with a plaque explaining its historical significance should work, said Republican Corley, among the staunchest supporters of keeping the Confederate flag flying at the State House.

“I’d love for us to spend as much time fixing roads as we did on a piece of cloth,” Corley added.

That is irresponsible when we have so much flood damage and we so many have crumbling roads.

– S.C. Rep. Chris Corley, R-Aiken

A public divided

Members of the public also have vastly different perspectives of how – or whether – the flag should be displayed.

Terry Hughey, a commander for the Columbia-based Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton Camp of the S.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he liked the proposal, calling it a “decent” tribute to the Confederate dead.

The cost is “not a problem,” even when the state has other needs, he said. “As tragic as that flood was, we keep forgetting about the 28,000-plus who died for a cause the state of South Carolina asked them to commit to.”

But Lonnie Randolph, president of the S.C. NAACP, called the proposal “a waste.”

“I hope our elected officials will show more responsibility to the citizens of this state – all 4.7 million of them,” Randolph said, adding he’d rather the money go toward education.

“We’re still fighting wars about race,” Randolph said. “The families of nine people had their families destroyed over what issue? Race. I can’t imagine us continuing to go through this.”

(W)e keep forgetting about the 28,000-plus who died for a cause the state of South Carolina asked them to commit to.

– Terry Hughey, a commander of the Columbia-based Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton Camp of the S.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans

Staff writer Andrew Shain contributed.

Displaying the Confederate flag

A commission has until Jan. 1 to agree on a proposal for displaying the flag and present it to state lawmakers. A look at the plan unveiled Thursday:

Cost: $5.3 million, plus $416,000 annually for rent, paid to the state

Details: Displaying the Confederate flag, furled from the State House grounds, in a case in front of a wall that could feature the names of S.C. troops who died in the Civil War. Other historic S.C. battle flags also could be displayed.

Would require: An expansion of the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum by adding a 4,600-square-foot room adjacent to the museum

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