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Votes

Petersen Hosts Town Hall Meeting

Constituents offer views on upcoming legislation.

For Zita Buky of Fairfax, attending Del. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen's (D-37th) town hall meeting served two purposes. She could inform herself of the issues that the General Assembly is grappling with, and she could take what she learned and apply it to her work with a nursing association.

"I wanted to hear what other people's issues were," said Buky, a nurse practitioner, who jotted down in her notebook people's comments about Medicaid, taxing junk food and increasing the cigarette tax.

Approximately 50 people attended Petersen's town hall meeting on Saturday, Jan. 31, in Fairfax's Old Town Hall. They listened to Petersen's breakdown of various state budget proposals and gave Petersen their views on what was important to them.

"I came here honestly to provide my own feedback and also listen to others," said Habib Khan, chair of the Fairfax City Republican Committee and director of graduate studies at Virginia International University.

Although no overall theme resonated in citizens' comments to Petersen, his constituents' opinions ranged from allowing televised proceedings of the House of Delegates to taxing junk food and supporting public transportation.

Many constituents supported raising the cigarette tax in Fairfax County from its current rate of 2.5 cents a pack, which has already received Petersen's support. Petersen last year created legislation that would allow counties to raise the cigarette tax to 50 cents, with the revenue going toward school capital projects. The City of Fairfax already taxes cigarettes 50 cents per pack.

"I think it would be a great idea, make it less financially accessible to our younger people," said Buky after the meeting, on raising the cigarette tax.

Constituents debated among themselves the merits of increasing the state's sales tax from 4.5 to 5.5 cents, an item proposed in the budgets of Gov. Mark Warner (D) and Sen. John H. Chichester (R-28th) as a way of increasing state revenue and balancing the state's budget. They also debated the merits of means-testing senior citizens' incomes for tax deductions, a proposed item in Warner's budget.

Janice Miller of Fairfax, a city School Board member, asked Petersen about the requests of several public Virginia universities seeking to create a charter for themselves.

Petersen did introduce a bill that would have created a 1-4 ratio of out-of-state undergraduates to in-state students at four-year institutions. That bill, H.B. 806, was tabled unanimously by the Education Committee, 22-0.

"We've severely cut back higher education, but we still own those buildings," said Petersen, responding to implied concerns that a charter would enable the universities to admit more out-of-state vs. in-state students. "The bottom line is that the state owns those buildings."

FAIRFAX RESIDENT Gail Lyon, a Fairfax City Council member, asked Petersen about the photo camera red-light program, which takes pictures of vehicles running red lights. The program is scheduled to expire in 2005.

Petersen expressed disappointment in the failure of a bill by Del. Michèle B. McQuigg (R-51st) to pass the Militia, Police, and Public Safety Committee, which would have allowed all localities to use the cameras. The bill failed to pass by a vote of 14-8.

Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-34th), whose district includes Petersen, had a similar bill, S.B. 92, which passed the Senate 28-11.

"Why not let localities have that option?" Petersen asked.

Preceding the open forum portion of the town hall meeting, Petersen gave a presentation explaining the three budget options that the General Assembly will face this spring: Warner's plan, Chichester's plan, and a no-tax plan.

"We don't know where it's going, that's the problem," said Fairfax resident Jack Fox on the budget. Like many others, Fox said he attended the meeting to keep informed.