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Most W.Va. politicians remain vaguely neutral on gun control

Dec. 23, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

West Virginia politicians, both at the national and state levels, have rushed to present their middle-of-the-road views on proposals to control the use of firearms in the wake of the tragic event in a Connecticut school that claimed the lives of 20 innocent young children as well as a half dozen adults.

Most of them appreciate the public opinion tightrope they must negotiate to keep the desired support of national groups that advocate the right to bear arms while at the same time appealing to those who desire much tighter gun control laws nationwide. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, started the debate last week by saying he believes "everything should be on the table. We should be talking about everything."

This non-definitive approach was designed to avoid upsetting voters on either side of this issue and was echoed later by many national and state political figures. Most of this state's political representatives in Washington responded with the most neutral comments possible while state lawmakers gladly passed the ball to the federal government. But Manchin still had to make it clear two days later to those constituents who don't want any messing with the right to bear arms that he was merely suggesting the topic be discussed.

Congressman Nick Rahall, a Democrat representing the 3rd District, adopted the age-old "some of my friends are for it and some of my friends are against it -- and I stand with my friends." He said the "causes of violence in America are bigger and broader than just firearms (and) I want to hear from all sides before Congress moves forward, so we can move forward together." No wonder he's been re-elected routinely every two years for nearly four decades.

Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, who represents the 2nd District, was even less specific if that's possible. She said she was "deeply saddened by the heart-breaking events in Newtown, Conn. There's no question (these) devastating shootings will ignite a debate."

At the state level, State Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said he would "not expect the state to consider any kind of ban legislation (on guns). These kinds of things are better addressed at the federal level, for uniformity."

Delegate Tim Armstead of Kanawha County, the leader of the Republican minority in the House of Delegates, was equally reserved in his comments. He said legislators "need to step back...it's too soon to say we are going to do this or that. After we step back, we can think thoughtfully about what policies need to be looked at."

To his credit, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin came the closest to actually suggesting a course of action. After first mentioning his credentials as an "outdoorsman," he said this state's laws that "give us the freedom. . .to bear arms should not prevent us from putting reasonable restrictions on assault weapons..."

These responses make it clear leaders in West Virginia government don't intend to upset members of the National Rifle Association and other groups that strongly oppose any movement toward widespread gun control in this country. Remember, the mascot at West Virginia University even carries a gun, even though its prime purpose is to make noise.

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The state of West Virginia has the second highest rate of adults who smoke in the nation (28.6 percent) and nearly one of every five high school students in this state also smoke, according to a report released earlier this month. But the more alarming news is that this state is spending far too little on programs to discourage this unhealthy habit.

West Virginia is spending only 20.5 percent of the amount recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for preventing the use of tobacco by adults and youngsters as well, according to a recent national report entitled "Broken Promises to Our Children: The 1998 State Tobacco Settlement 14 Years Later."

This state will receive about $231 million this year from the tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes but a mere 2.5 percent of this sum will be directed to tobacco prevention and cessation programs, according to the report. In fact, most of the states don't adequately fund tobacco prevention programs.

Only Alaska and North Dakota currently provide funding at the level recommended by the CDC, according to this report. Critics of our state's low support for programs to encourage kids to avoid smoking argue that state government is being "penny-wise and pound foolish" to not provide adequate funding for these important programs.

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At a time when you are paying about $3.25 or more per gallon for gasoline in West Virginia, the news that this state's tax on gasoline will go up 1.3 cents per gallon on Jan. 1 doesn't seem like a big deal. The state currently charges 33.4 cents per gallon in addition to the federal government's flat rate of 18.4 cents per gallon on unleaded gas. So this means the combined state and federal tax per gallon that currently is 50.8 cents will climb to 52.1 cents in a few days.

The increase is required by one of the two components that fixes the state tax rate on gasoline. The first component is a flat 20.5-cent tax on each gallon sold. The second is determined by applying a variable rate equal to five percent of the average wholesale price of motor fuel. Last month, state officials determined the average wholesale price had jumped more than 25 cents from $2.574 per gallon to $2.831 a gallon. So the state's five percent share will go up from 33.4 cents per gallon to 34.7 cents on Jan. 1, 2013. We should be thankful the state is limited to a maximum increase of 10 percent in a single year or otherwise the new state tax would be higher.

Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.

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