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CURRENT STORIES


Fiddling away

It sure didn't take long for Del. Mike Caputo's prophecy on trucking weight limits to come true.

On March 7, state delegates voted 56-43 to increase the maximum coal-truck weights from 80,000 to 120,000 pounds in 15 Southern West Virginia counties.

Caputo had admirably fought the bill, introducing a measure that instead would have stepped up law enforcement of the 80,000-pound limit. But he was just another Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Here's what Caputo had to say in a March 8 story in The Exponent Telegram written by Regional Editor Nora Edinger:

"We fought the fight," a disappointed Caputo said (March 7). "It was the people of West Virginia I felt like I was speaking for." ...

Now that passage of the bill appears imminent, he suspects the coal industry will complain that haulers in northern counties are at an unfair disadvantage if they, too, cannot haul 120,000 pounds.

"I'm afraid ... greed will take over and they will ask for it to spread north," Caputo said.

Apparently Caputo was reading West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney's future. Or maybe his mind. Or his mail.

Because in a story released Sunday by veteran AP coal industry reporter Martha Bryson Hodel, Raney sounds ready to battle to have the law extended all over the state.

Hodel wrote:

... new requirements for computerized reporting of the weight of coal trucks apply across West Virginia, although weight limits remain unchanged in 40 of West Virginia's 55 counties.

Coal haulers in those counties must comply with the electronic reporting requirements, and (Raney) said that may put some northern haulers at a disadvantage.

"We're putting new reporting requirements on people who don't have an opportunity to haul the increased weights," Raney said. "That's an aberration that resulted from the way this bill was put together."

As initially envisioned by the coal industry, the higher weight limits would have applied across West Virginia, Raney said.

"Through the legislative process, that statewide bill was restricted to 15 counties. And that is kind of a problem in the sense that the reporting requirement remains for everyone."

This just goes to show that you can never believe legislative leaders, or the lobbyists who pull their strings, when they say a measure is targeted to a narrow area of the state and that it won't spread.

All you have to do is drive a few miles down the road to find one of those trashy video gambling signs. Didn't lawmakers tell us not too long ago that video gambling would just be for the horse-racing and dog-racing tracks, which ostensibly needed the alternative revenue source? We're certainly way past that now. And it won't be long until the video lottery machines are replaced -- or added to -- by green-velvet tables, visor-wearing dealers, roulette wheels and glassy-eyed, tapped-out gamblers in seamy, smoke-filled interiors.

Sure, Caputo and others from our area will fight the good fight again at this year's legislative session, and bless them for that. They will have a chance of stopping this incessant, evil march by those who put profits above the mental and physical well-being of state residents. That chance will be about the same as a speeding, 120,000-pound coal truck getting stopped or out of the way in time when the driver notices his rig's over the line and there's a car coming up this 12-percent grade. Uh-oh ...

In Hodel's AP story, the logic by some of the truckers is that they actually were running way over the limit before, and so they won't be doing so now. One truck company owner even says it's now time to invest in new, smaller trucks. "We can't have trucks that weigh 50,000 pounds when they're empty if we're only hauling 120,000 pounds total," he told Hodel. "We have been hauling 160,000 pounds."

Hodel also wrote that "other operators confess to having run loads as big as 190,000 pounds."

So now, just because there's a new law, we're supposed to believe that these folks will obey the weight limits? And we're supposed to believe that state inspectors won't look the other way, as they've obviously been doing for years?

You deserve a piece of coal in your Christmas stocking if you buy into that. But the good news is that it's unlikely one of those rigs hauling 200,000-plus pounds will miss a few hunks of black rock, just in case Santa comes up short.

Coal truck companies and drivers want to make a buck, and so do coal miners. It's hard to blame them for that, especially when this state has done such a miserable job showing or providing them alternatives that don't involve a $6-an-hour gig flipping burgers or chasing shopping carts.

And here's guessing many West Virginians who gamble do it because it provides excitement and the chance (even if it's a foolish one) for a hopeful tomorrow.

Too many leaders of West Virginia's Legislature spend a lot of time providing new ways for the destruction of state residents.

Until these rogue lawmakers learn to value constituents as much as special-interest lobbyists, and are willing to undertake the complicated fix instead of the quick one (even if that costs some their elected positions), then Mountaineers will, indeed, always be free.

Free one day not too far off, that is, to watch their lawmakers fiddle above the ruins of their once-noble state.

Matt Harvey