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Votes

Petersen Takes Stock

At midway point, Fairfax delegate contemplates 2005 legislation.

Even though some of the bills Del. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-37th) was most excited about have been defeated, he still believes in the idea behind them.

Two of the bills he presented would have changed the state’s academic atmosphere. One bill would have mandated that all schools in Virginia have an all-day kindergarten program. Although he has young children, he said that the program would be of greater benefit to others.

Sitting in his office in Richmond, the mention of his daughters caused him to turn and look over his shoulder at the family photos he keeps prominently displayed. His older daughter attends school in the City of Fairfax, which already has all-day kindergarten, Petersen explained. His younger daughter is 2 and therefore not yet in school.

The idea behind all-day kindergarten is that it can help to prepare children for the testing mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind program. However, costs are incurred in both staffing and additional classroom space if schools have to effectively double the number of kindergarten classes. The proposal was killed in committee.

Another of Petersen's education-related bills would have created the “Commonwealth Scholars” program. The program would have given scholarships to Virginia’s top academic achievers. “I felt like my Commonwealth Scholars program was an idea that made sense,” he said. “We have [scholarships] in football. I think we ought to have some way of rewarding our top students.”

The bill was defeated in committee, but Petersen hopes to continue bringing it forward. “I’ll keep bringing this up until it gets passed,” he said.

Of course, if Petersen has his way, that will mean finding someone else to sponsor the bill. Petersen hopes to be the Democratic Party's candidate for lieutenant governor, a position that would not allow him to submit legislation.

His campaign may also be one of the reasons that his bills have met with such resistance this session. In an election year, it is often difficult for members of the minority party to win legislative victories. In the past, however, Petersen has said that he is not concerned with playing politics. His votes, he said, are cast based on the way he thinks will best represent his district.

HOWEVER, at least one bill would have had a greater impact outside of Fairfax County than it would have in Petersen’s District. House Bill 2858 dealt with what is known as “Clawback.” The state sets aside funding each year to give to companies that are considering relocating or opening a new office.

These economic incentives can take a variety of forms, but all are designed to help bring jobs to Virginia. Some companies will take the money and then close the office. “There has been abuse of the system,” Petersen said. “Nearly every local official I talk to has the same concern.”

While this issue is not typically a problem in fast-growing Fairfax County, other parts of the state, such as Hampton-Roads, Newport News and James City County, are frequently victims of this tactic.

Petersen wanted to require businesses that relocate to make a time commitment to stay in the commonwealth. As originally written, he wanted them to stay for five years, but that length of time would have been subject to negotiation.

He acknowledged that this might scare off some businesses. “The businesses that are more hesitant are the ones we don’t want,” Petersen said. “We have to have some standards.” The bill was killed in committee.

PETERSEN HIMSELF has been able to stop the passage of at least one bill he felt would have had a negative effect on seniors. House Bill 2601 was proposed by Del. R. Steven Landes (R-25th). The bill deals with an issue that is becoming increasingly recognized as an abuse of the Medicaid system.

Sometimes, seniors who have too much money to qualify for Medicaid funding will give portions of their assets away in order to lower their net worth and then qualify. This bill would have placed tighter restrictions on that practice.

Petersen, however, thought that the bill went too far. “That resolution, if passed, would have had a very severe affect on our seniors,” he said. He fought the bill on the floor of the House of Delegates and was able to convince enough legislators of his position that amendments were included that offered more protection to the seniors. “It would have sailed through,” he said. The bill as amended was eventually passed and moved to the Senate.