Stateline Story

Silver Haired Legislatures Push Senior Issues In Most State Houses

Lawmakers in 27 states toil under the vigilant gaze of activists 60 and over who propose, and track, legislation affecting the elderly. The first Silver Haired Legislature was formed in Missouri in 1973, according to Felix Nigh, president of the National Council of Silver Haired Legislators.

Twenty-six years later, Silver Haired Legislature chapters are in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Now seniors in New Mexico and Arizona are trying to boost the number of states with model legislatures for senior citizens to 29, Nigh says.

Congress also gets an earful when it comes to issues affecting elderly. Senior advocates belonging to the National Silver Haired Congress see to that.

On the state level, Silver Haired Legislature members are elected by their peers and try to influence bills pertaining to medical care, consumer protection and age discrimination, among other matters. But advocacy isn't limited just to matters affecting those with silver hair.

During the 1999 legislative session, Texas's 116-member Silver Haired Legislature worked at:

  • Preventing a proposed merger between the Texas Department on Aging and Health and Human Services, leading to a possible dilution of services dedicated to the elderly.
  • >Lowering the DUI blood-alcohol level from 0.1 percent to .08 percent.
  • Boosting the monthly personal allowance Medicare recipients in Texas nursing homes get from $30 to $45.
  • Opposing legislation supporting school vouchers.
    Requiring background checks for home healthcare givers.

"We pass anywhere from 65 percent to 70 percent of our proposals," boasts Nigh, 71, a Texas Silver Hair who's a retired oil company employee. Before the session begins, "we take a bound booklet of resolutions to every senator's office, every representative's office, the governor, the Lt. Governor and the secretary of state. Nigh added, "We start doing that in late September."

Florida has the highest percentage of elderly residents, according the U.S. Bureau of the Census. In 1997, the latest year for which statistics are available, 18.5 percent of Floridians were 65 years old or older. Pennsylvania and Rhode Island tied for second at 15.8 percent.

West Virginia was next at 15.1 percent, then Iowa 15.0 percent, North Dakota and Connecticut 14.4 percent, Arkansas and South Dakota 14.3 percent and Massachusetts 14.1 percent.

The Census Bureau predicts Nigh and his colleagues nationwide will have dramatically bigger constituencies in coming decades.

In 1997, 34.1 million U.S. citizens were 65 and older, according to the Census Bureau. That is projected to grow to an estimated 34.7 million at the beginning of the next millennium, 39.4 million in 2010, 53.2 million seniors in 2020 and 69.4 million in 2030. The tremendous increase from 2010 to 2030 will be driven in large part by the "baby boomers" reaching 65 years of age.

And the rise would be even more impressive if it included individuals 60 years old, the entry age for Silver Haired Legislature members.

Despite having the highest percentage of senior residents, the ride hasn't been smooth for Florida's Silver Haired Legislature the last year or so. Its clout has been weakened by a shift to Republican dominance, instead of senior-friendly Democrats.

In addition Florida, the first state to approve school vouchers, put a lot of legislative energy in 1999 into education, crime and the environment, generally not top priorities for the elderly.

University of South Florida professor Susan MacManus, considered an expert on senior politics, says the Silver Haired Lobby in Florida is waning in importance. "Once they received massive amounts of attention," MacManus, who teaches political science, told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. "Now they are an afterthought."

That could change dramatically toward the early part of the next century.

The speaker of Rhode Island's 100-member Silver Haired Legislature, Joseph Corrente, isn't looking that far ahead. He's more concerned about his legislature's failure this year to earmark $11 million of Rhode Island's tobacco settlement for health care programs for the elderly.

"We ended up with about $1 million, far short of our expectations," says Corrente, 76. The World War II and Korean War veteran will continue to fight for the needs of Rhode Island seniors, though.

"The old adage is that seniors certainly do go out and vote," Corrente says cagily, "and legislators are aware of that."