The 2011Virginia Regular Session came to a close Sunday, Feb. 27. For 30 days, House and Senate Representatives met to discuss and refresh Virginia law, represent citizens in public policy, elect judges, certify budgets, impose taxes, and approve appointments by the Governor. Senator John Chap Petersen was one such member who took part in the session.
Peterson was born and raised as a leader in his hometown community of Fairfax, Virginia. He applied himself into politics early and served two terms on council after graduating from Williams College in 1990 and University of Law School in 1994.
In 2007, Petersen knocked on over 18,000 doors to win over the 34th Senate district, in which he earned a seat in both the Virginia House and Virginia Senate. He was also assigned permanent standing committees on Transportation, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Privileges and Elections, and General Laws, as well as the Senate’s representative on a state commission on Energy and Environment.
Some of Petersen’s most successful bills included SB 450, which forbid domestic abusers from inheriting the property from spouses that they killed and SB 510, which guaranteed Virginia college students the right to a fairly priced student loan.
Currently, Petersen is a member of the board of directors at the Fairfax County good news jail ministry. He participates in the Fairfax Noonday Optimist Club, the Northern Virginia Rugby Football Club, the Truro Episcopal Church, and he is a board member of the Virginia Economic Bridge.
Petersen felt a great responsibility for supporting the community he grew up in this session. His top three goals were to stay in touch with his constituents, listen to both sides before every contested vote, and exercise every day.
“I love being in the state legislature,” he said. “Representing my own community is a great honor, and I never take it for granted.”
The session commenced on Jan. 12, 2011.
Petersen stood behind over 120 bills, with his top three bills being SB 832 (green buildings), SB 843 (above ground storage tank regulation), and SB 837 (foreclosure fraud), which was a package bill between SB 836 and SB 838.
SB 832 unanimously passed through General Laws Committee on Jan. 26. The bill required the Department of General Services to use LEED-related standards in designing and constructing new state buildings. If the bill became law, it would be the first time in Virginia history that energy efficient building standards were written into the State Code. Unfortunately, SB 832 made it through Senate, but it was never taken up for a vote in the House Appropriations Committee. This was the fourth time Petersen has presented this bill and it died in the House.
On Jan. 31, SB 843 passed in both the Senate and House unanimously. The bill cracked down on regulating above ground storage tanks by doing the following with HB 2103: gave local governments input on “consent orders” governing spills, assigned penalties from spills towards local recovery efforts, and renewed tanks standards. SB 843 asked tank farm owners to update all pre-1992 structures to conform to current design requirements, including demand the use of “double-bottoms” to prevent leaks.
Petersen’s most valuable bill this session was his foreclosure bill SB 837.
“The current law is not balanced,” he said. “Moreover, it gives no benefit to Virginia taxpayers or homeowners, who deserve an honest and objective system. There is also a potential revenue issue.”
This bill was a “dual” bill with SB 836 and SB 838 that did three things: it required a 30-day notice to foreclose on a defaulted party, with the notice having to contain information identifying the loan owner, the loan servicer and the amount outstanding. Two, forbid the use of false documents in possessing a foreclosure, with specific charges against those creditors who rely on those documents. And three, creditors are expected to register purchases of mortgages with the Clerk of Circuit Court. Of the two of the three bills that passed in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, SB 837 and SB 838, only SB 837 survived. SB 838 failed on cross-over day and is dead for the year.
Petersen experienced a rollercoaster of these frustrations and reliefs over the course of the session.
Some of his biggest disappointments filtered from a number his bills being “left” in the House after they passed the Senate. SB 848, for example, was specially requested by the City of Fairfax and its firefighters. The bill would have permitted the city to voluntarily enroll personnel in a friendlier pension plan than the year before, while keeping existing personnel in the Virginia Retirement System. The bill failed unaffected in the House. Petersen was bothered that not only did the City representatives speak for the bill, but no one spoke against it, the director of VRS had no problem with it, and it had no cost to the state. No reason was given for defeat.
Similarly, the Senate voted 24-16 to pass SB 831, a restriction on the ability of the Attorney General to issue “civil investigative demands” against universities and professors based upon their research. It was also defeated in the House untouched.
“Now, I can’t say what motivates all lawmakers. The ones I know are people of good faith. And I would never presume to think that voting a certain way is evidence of any morality. It’s not. But there are basic rules of fairness which I feel are being frustrated this session,” Petersen said on a post in his blog OxRoadSouth.
Still, a number of his bills that passed in the Senate were able to slip by in the House. These bills included SB 844 in the Senate Finance, which allowed local governments to expose information on their expenses to the general public, and SB 846, a bill that equalized the legal status between local governments and water authorities in order to collect outstanding accounts. SB 1054 passed a Rules Subcommittee unanimously. This bill continued the State Civics Education Commission. Another bill, SB 841, passed in both Senate and House, which “extended charitable immunity to the officers and directors of nonprofits like community pools after they dissolve.”(f.y.i. this bill applied to my neighborhood in Kings Park West); minor successes for a major cause.
Feb. 8 marked cross-over day this session. This meant that the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee had to dispose of all legislation by the end of the day, and hundreds of bills were voted on as they got to the “final read.”
Proposed constitutional amendments that passed were required to go through both Subcommittee and full Committee. Most proposals did not make it. Nonetheless, the Committee did pass JHR 693, which amends the Virginia Constitution to add a section limiting the use of eminent domain. If it clears, it will go to the voting public in 2012.
The Senate voted 37-3 to pass the Senate budget, and on Feb. 27, the conference committee report unanimously passed through the House.
On Wed. April 6, the reconvened session will convene to consider any Governor’s amendments or vetoes to legislation passed by the General Assembly. Petersen will also be attending.
When asked what he stood for as a Democratic Senator, Petersen responded that he was responsible for upholding and defending constitutional rights, fighting the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, keeping government open and accountable, and protecting children, the elderly and the disabled.