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Votes

Petersen to Push Education Agenda

Health and transportation will also be on delegate's agenda.

Del. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-37th) isn't worried about playing election-year politics in this session of the General Assembly. He is running for lieutenant governor this year and expects that the Republican majority in the House of Delegates will force him into taking votes on controversial issues, so that those votes can be used against him on the campaign trail. "That happens at all levels," he said.

Petersen will continue to act in what he believes to be the best interests of his constituents, he said, and will not worry about what voters in other parts of the state might think.

"I really fall back on my own instincts as an attorney and as a father," Petersen said. "I'm there to do the right thing."

Last year, Petersen had been assigned to the Science and Technology and the Public Safety committees. While he has not formally received notification of this year's assignments, delegates traditionally sit on the same committee for both years of their term.

Some of the bills that Petersen is most excited about submitting this year have nothing to do with his committees.

One bill would mandate all-day kindergarten in Virginia's public schools. Several schools in Fairfax County already have all-day kindergarten programs, instead of the traditional half-day.

One of the problems that schools encounter when implementing this program is classroom space. Two half-day classes can share the same room, but all-day classes would need two separate classes.

Petersen hopes to include some facilities funding for school systems to help them to increase the classroom space that would be needed for the program. "It's not going to work unless there's some kind of construction bonus or construction funding," he said.

ANOTHER BILL in the education area would be establishing what he plans to call the "Commonwealth Scholars" program. Under this new program, high-school seniors who finish in the top 5 percent of their class and then go on to a Virginia university would have their first year of college paid for by the state. Petersen estimates that this program would cost approximately $10 million.

He has at least one idea about how to pay for these programs. The state, he said, pays more than it needs to for prescription drugs in its Medicaid program. Virginia could join other states in a pooling arrangement and buy the drugs in bulk. "It's a way of using our market power to bring down the price," Petersen said. He estimated that the state could save approximately $10 million, about the amount necessary for his Commonwealth Scholars Program.

Although last year Petersen had worked on a proposal to import drugs from Canada, he said that he has too many other initiatives going to be able to work for that again. However, if someone else were to propose legislation along those lines, he might be willing to co-sponsor it.

Petersen expects transportation to be one of the big issues the Assembly tackles this year. While he has not yet had time to review the proposal released by the Republican legislators, he has seen Gov. Mark Warner's (D) proposal, and he is generally supportive of it.

"One thing I'm particularly supportive of is the use of rail," Petersen said. "I think we've got to expand the VRE [Virginia Railway Express] system into a statewide system, not just a Northern Virginia commuter rail," Petersen said.