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Statehouse Beat: No shortage of common-sense driving ads

Among the great ironies of state government is that while the state lacks sufficient federal funding to adequately maintain roads and bridges in the state (and may have none come August), it has plenty of federal funding to constantly remind drivers not to drink and drive, to fasten their seatbelts, to slow down when driving on snow, and to turn off their cellphones while driving.

Between the Department of Transportation and the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, administered by the Division of Motor Vehicles, the state buys about $2.8 million a year of airtime to remind drivers to use common sense. Virtually all the ads are paid for with federal funds.

The division has an ad budget of about $1.5 million a year, with about $1 million dedicated to alcohol awareness (which of late has consisted of the infamous “Impaired Jimmy” spots).

The department, meanwhile, spent $1.3 million last year on safety ads, including ads for anti-texting (“Just Drive”), winter-weather driving (“Go Slow in the Snow”), work zone safety, and promoting the state’s 511 system.

It also pays MetroNews $85,000 a year to air a weekly one-hour program, “West Virginia on the DOT,” on Saturday mornings, according to DOT spokesman Brent Walker.

Of all state media outlets, John Raese’s MetroNews network gets by far the bulk of state-funded driver safety advertising, totaling more than $7.2 million since 2000, including $2.68 million from DMV, and $723,463 from Highways.

(The attorney general’s office is the third biggest state client, at $456,710, including a $18,819 ad buy in June for identity theft spots.)

In 2012, state agencies bought $1,139,659 of air-time on the MetroNews network, and $893,112 in 2013 -- all via no-bid contracts.

By contrast in 2013, WCHS-TV got $104,291 of state business, and that includes the $39,000 a year the Division of Natural Resources pays for “West Virginia Wildlife” segments on the station’s newscasts.

Likewise, market leader WSAZ-TV had but $10,980 of state advertising in 2013, and most of that was for ads for a state college in Huntington.

Walker noted that under federal law, the safety promotion funds can only be used for that purpose.

“It does not allow them to be used for paving, or patching potholes, or slip repairs,” he said.

Bob Tipton, director of the Highway Safety Program, said the ads are timed to coincide with enhanced enforcement efforts, i.e., “Impaired Jimmy” airs during periods of increased DUI checkpoints.

It’s reasonable to suppose that the state agencies are flooding the airwaves with ads constantly reminding West Virginians to drive safely not because state drivers have short-term memory issues, but because the agency heads realize they are buying a measure of goodwill from the stations when it comes to news coverage.

It’s like the old newspaper saying that there are two entities that are never subjects of investigative reporting: grocery store chains and auto dealerships.

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A final irony is that, with severe cuts to the state Tourism Commission’s advertising budget, it is conceivable the state will spend more this year on ads reminding state drivers not to be stupid than it will spend to encourage residents of neighboring states to come vacation in the Mountain State.

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The State Election Commission meets Wednesday to approve wording for cards that will be distributed explaining the purpose of “Nonprofit Youth Organization Tax Exempt Support” amendment to the state constitution that will be on the November ballot.

In effect, it would allow the Boy Scouts to lease out facilities at the Summit Bechtel Family Reserve in Fayette County without jeopardizing the 10,600-acre complex’s tax-exempt status.

Proponents note that would allow the BSA to lease out all or part of the facility for concerts, corporate retreats, or other events with paid admission, making the Summit even more of an economic boon for the area.

Under state law, the secretary of state may publish and distribute materials explaining proposed constitutional amendments that are up for referendum on the general election ballot.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said she would like to have the cards printed and available for distribution at the State Fair, which begins Aug. 8, as well as at county fairs and other events.

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Finally, operators of the Hollywood Casino in Charles Town and Mountaineer Casino in Chester are fretting that their host counties are in the process of catching up with the rest of the civilized world in imposing smoking bans.

Perhaps they can take a page from Mardi Gras Casino (which survived Kanawha County’s smoking ban relatively unscathed), which this month opened an outdoor gaming pavilion featuring slots and blackjack tables.

No, they’re not trying to cash in on the dining al fresco craze that has hit downtown Charleston, but providing an area where smokers can simultaneously gamble while feeding their tobacco addictions.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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