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While Washington has been completely absorbed for the last month in the cynical, childish and completely manufactured-for-the-cameras drama around increasing the nation's debt ceiling, the convenience store industry has turned up the heat on another long-simmering issue around the commercialization of interstate rest areas.
As outlined in a previous Convenience Store News article, NACS has rightly mobilized their legislative and grassroots capabilities in an effort to defeat legislation offered by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) that would, among other things, end the 50-year ban on gas stations, truck stops, restaurants and other commercial services from operating in state-operated rest areas along the interstate highway system.
The reasons why this is a short-sighted proposal have been well-documented. Clearly businesses located at interstate interchanges could face some devastating impacts and the industry is doing an excellent job educating lawmakers about the unintended negative consequences such a significant shift in policy could have. While protecting the near-term interests of a significant cross-section of the industry is important, a significant political opportunity exists for the industry that could be even more critical down the road.
For the last five years, the convenience store industry and NACS have played the leadership role in the ultimately successful effort of curbing the abuses of the banking and credit card industry when it came to credit and debit card interchange fees. Additionally, this summer, when the banking industry turned its entire political arsenal toward reversing the gains made last year, NACS was once again at the helm opposing the banks at every step and ensuring their defeat yet again.
This outcome has immediate obvious financial benefits for convenience stores and other retailers, but probably the greatest impact is the effect on the long-term political standing of the industry inside the Beltway and within the retail community. For both audiences, the message is clear: when this industry engages on an issue, it will jump in strongly, unapologetically and will not be afraid to lead.
Fast forward to the rest stop commercialization issue and we are seeing the same scenario playing out. The industry is taking a leadership role in not only the legislative advocacy function, but leveraging important cross-industry relationships at the state level to build a legitimate broad-based grassroots effort. And like the interchange issue, where they had to take on traditional conservative orthodoxies like less regulation in the marketplace, they are now also taking on the pro-business orthodoxy of states' rights and privatization -- and of course, the caucus of traditional pro-business congressman and senators who customarily protect those ideals.
This battle has some even more interesting nuances. In an effort to free up federal transportation dollars, many in Congress are more than happy to accommodate numerous states and their desire to raise more revenue on their own through, among other things, commercializing rest stops. If states can generate their own dollars then they are less reliant on Congressional check writers, right? On the surface that sounds like a good thing. Additionally, if states want to "privatize" industries to close budget gaps, that's good too, correct? Well, that's not quite the case here.
This really wouldn't be creating new revenue. In reality, this would just transfer those tax dollars from mostly local coffers where they reside now to state treasuries. The pie doesn't get bigger, the tax base doesn't increase, yet those reliant on local taxes -- schools, public services such as police and fire protection, local roads, and the small towns themselves that have grown up along the interstates -- stand to lose big.
Political opportunity? Yes sir. The industry now has an opportunity to not only solidify its position as a leader in main street activism but forge new alliances with cities, counties, mayors and other local elected officials that can be brought to bear on this and other issues going forward. The industry is well positioned to do just that.
The rest area commercialization issue puts convenience store owners in much the same kind of fight they have been in for the last many years on debit cards. They have to help lead a meaningful business coalition both in D.C. and back in the districts. They have to take on some accepted conservative principles, and they have to do fierce battle with some long-time congressional allies. Sound familiar?
Turned out pretty well the last time. Here's hoping the same level of engagement will work again.
Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Parquet Public Affairs, a national issue management, communications, government relations and reputation assurance firm that specializes in service sector industries. Parquet's clients include Fortune 500 corporations, trade associations, regional businesses and non-profit organizations. For more information, go to www.ParquetPA.com.
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.