Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam inclined to sign whiskey distillery bill

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam inclined to sign whiskey distillery bill

May 15th, 2013 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Bill Haslam

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam says he's likely to sign into law a bill updating the state's 2009 liquor distillery statute despite questions raised about two real estate investments he has with a Knoxville developer who helped push the bill.

"It was passed by the Legislature," Haslam said. "I don't see any constitutional issues. I don't think there's a lack of clarity. I don't know at this point and date why I wouldn't [sign it]."

The bill was sent to Haslam on May 6. Governors have 10 days to decide what action to take. The governor can sign, veto or allow the bill to become law without his signature.

Haslam emphasized earlier this week the bill was not an administration initiative. And he said he didn't know developer Ned Vickers was involved in the bill and a proposed Gatlinburg distillery, let alone discuss the matter with him.

"Y'all's job is to ask questions, but it's also your job to get the answer right," the irritated governor lectured reporters about a news report on the issue. "And this is a situation, somebody [Vickers] I've talked to once maybe in the last four years, never about anything to do with the state."

He said previous investments he made with Holrob Investments, with which Vickers was associated, were placed in a blind trust he created when he became governor in 2011.

The Tennessean reported this week that before placing most of his holdings in the blind trust, Haslam listed 18 Holrob-affiliated investments on a disclosure. The newspaper reported he still has two.

Joe Ledbetter, left, and Tim Piersant are the founders of Chattanooga Whiskey Co.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Haslam said he can't say for sure whether he still has the two investments because they're part of the blind trust, controlled by a trustee.

Vickers said Tuesday "the governor has absolutely no interest in the distillery or the real estate entity that holds the land that the distillery will be built upon."

He accused owners of Ole Smokey Moonshine Distillery, which fought changes to existing law, of a final "hail Mary" attack "to try to prevent competition in Gatlinburg."

The "whiskey bill," as it was known, is a rewrite of provisions in a 2009 law that made it easier to start liquor distilleries across Tennessee.

A push to change the law came out of Hamilton County after the county was excluded by Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, from the original provisions, said Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas.

Carr, along with Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, sponsored the 2009 law and this year's rewrite.

Local lawmakers' request to Carr and Ketron stemmed from efforts by owners of a local firm, Chattanooga Whiskey Co., who wanted to produce the product in the company's home town.

For Chattanooga Whiskey co-owner Joe Ledbetter, the latest controversy is unwelcome but hardly a surprise.

"It [bill] began with us and every single legislative hurdle that could have been put in front of us was," he said. "I'm not surprised that at the eleventh-and-a-half hour that we're dealing with something else."

Ledbetter said that in his discussions with Vickers about the bill "not one time did we discuss anything about Gov. Haslam."

Carr said the administration took no position on the bill, deferring to the Legislature, and noted he never saw "Haslam's hand in the bill."

"I had no idea that the governor and Ned Vickers had any relationship at all" until reading The Tennessean's article, he said.