By Erik Schelzig,,Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam is endorsing his brother’s right to speak out against privatizing interstate rest stops, a move opposed by his family’s truck stop chain.
The Republican governor has recused himself from handling issues that could affect Knoxville-based Pilot Flying J, but says brother Jimmy Haslam as president and CEO has a responsibility to try to influence politicians on matters that affect the business.
“He’s the CEO of a major Tennessee business that has their interests to defend,” Haslam said after a recent tour of a road project in Nashville. “And that’s nothing new: Pilot’s been talking about that, as has everybody else that has an interstate business — from McDonald’s to everybody — else for years.”
The governor last month recused himself from a decision to request a federal waiver on gasoline standards after an explosion at the Valero refinery in Memphis led to concerns about gas shortages in the city, one of the country’s largest freight distribution hubs. Valero is also Pilot’s largest fuel supplier in the Memphis area.
Jimmy Haslam recently wrote to the governor and other elected officials urging them to reject any effort to privatize interstate rest stops currently owned by the Tennessee Department of Transportation and operated at taxpayer expense, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported earlier this month.
“While at first glance this may seem like an easy way for state DOTs to generate revenue, the fact is it will devastate private businesses like mine that for the last 50 years have operated under the current law and established locations at the highway exits,” Haslam wrote in the letter.
Bill Haslam was president of Pilot until his election as Knoxville mayor in 2003, and his ongoing part-ownership of the company became a major campaign issue during last year’s governor’s race.
Haslam has refused to disclose how much money he earns from his Pilot holdings on the basis that it would reveal personal information about family members as well as proprietary information about the privately held company with annual revenues of about $20 billion.
Federal law generally prohibits the commercialization of rest stops on interstates built after 1956 other than vending machines, according the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website.
Tennessee currently operates 18 rest areas at an annual cost of about $3.75 million, according the Tennessee Department of Transportation. The state contracts with the nonprofit Community Rehabilitation Agencies of Tennessee to operate and clean the rest areas.
The governor said he agrees that it would be unfair to overhaul the current system.
“People make investments off of interstates and then the state comes in and takes its public right of way and lets a private company go into business there,” he said. “I think the argument there is you’re changing the game.”
Haslam also says there are no major changes in priorities at TDOT despite recent personnel changes that elevated the top highway construction official over the now-vacant top environmental post. The promotion of chief engineer Paul Degges to deputy commissioner included a 44-percent raise to $138,500 a year.
That deputy commissioner position had been eliminated under former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen to stress that environmental and community priorities would carry the same weight as engineering plans — a move that was heavily criticized by the influential road builders lobby.
Haslam said after the recent bus tour of TDOT projects — which included the executive director of the Tennessee Road Builders Association — that it’s “absolutely not” the case that TDOT is changing its approach back to how it operated under former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist.
“I think it’s a huge jump to conclusions to say just because a new commissioner brings in his own team of people that there’s some major policy change,” Haslam said.
The governor said it’s up to Commissioner John Schroer to decide how best to structure his agency as part of the “top to bottom” review that each agency has been assigned.
TDOT has rejected an Associated Press records request for records relating to that review as either too broad or for seeking confidential information.
(Note: Except for the bottom part of the story, this may seem a bit repetitious to regular readers of this blog (and thanks to both of you!) Original post was HERE (written when the gov was out of town and having his transportation commissioner comment), a follow-up on the governor’s comments HERE. )