SACRAMENTO — The California Senior Legislature, a democratic body of 120 persons over 60 years of age who are elected by their peers, has sent a message that is loud and clear to its public counterparts in the California Legislature and the U.S. Congress:
California's seniors share two primary concerns: health care and housing.
The Senior Legislature, 40 senior senators and 80 assembly persons, met in the Capitol here recently to debate the merits of 118 bills introduced by its representatives from throughout the state. After days of discussion, parliamentary maneuvering and occasional haggling, they voted to recommend 10 measures as priorities for the attention of California's legislators when they reconvene in January and another four as top federal priorities.
Of the 10 state priorities, five deal specifically with health services and four with housing. Another measure on transportation for the elderly and handicapped is tangential to health care.
On the federal level, the Senior Legislature tabbed two health bills and a measure that calls for the Social Security Administration to become an independent agency with its trust fund removed from the federal general budget. The fourth bill calls for an increase in federal housing funds for those who are elderly, disabled or of low income.
No Weight of Law
The California Senior Legislature has no weight of law. Its advice, however, is heeded by legislators. Of the 26 measures the CSL called to the California Legislature's attention last year, 17 have been signed into law--the last with a flourish by Gov. George Deukmejian at the opening of the CSL's weeklong session in the Capitol.
Admittedly, the CSL has smaller influence on Congress. A movement is under way, however, for formation of a similar body, tentatively called the National Silver Haired Congress, to lobby on the federal level. The chairman of the movement, California Senior Legislature Sen. Neel Buell of Fountain Valley, traveled to Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi last week with the expectation of bringing participating states up to 44.
The senior legislators are politically canny to an amazing degree. They know how to make deals. They know their Robert's Rules of Order--and they don't hesitate to use them to maneuver during debate in the soft green Assembly chamber or the delicately pink Senate. They also know who their friends are in the California Legislature.
Some of them spoke informally during a recess in the Senior Assembly debate.
"Housing will be the top priority after health," CSL Assemblywoman Martha Strauss of Los Angeles predicted. "(Assemblyman) Gray Davis and (state Sen. John) Garamendi are into a housing bill now. And (state Sen. Henry) Mello put through a bill to speed up the bureaucracy."
Senior Assemblyman Sol Garber of Van Nuys, who sits on the CSL's governing body, the Joint Rules Committee, was elated at the progress of the last California Legislature.
"Every one of those 17 bills passed is important," he said. "Eight of our 10 priorities were passed into law.
"You know, I'm five years younger since I got involved with the Senior Legislature."
Dr. Mathew Ross, a Newport Beach psychiatrist who is a senior assemblyman, said he has "been involved in the problems of seniors since I was in medical school." His assessment of the Senior Legislature's stance on health care proved to be a realistic one.
"There are a number of health issues, including a national health program, that are being considered," he said. "Each one has some merit. To put them all together is a task we have not and will not achieve.
"The important thing is that the Senior Legislature is saying to the California Legislature, 'We are interested in a number of health problems, and these are they.' Seniors are very concerned about health issues."
"The good bills make it--health, housing, Social Security," Garber said.
During the floor debate in the Assembly, Garber and Ross differed. Later they discussed their views--and found their differences minimal.
Medical, Accounting Fields
"Ross is a medical man," Garber said, "and I have an accounting background."
"And that," Ross said quickly, "is the whole issue in health care. The doctors no longer are making the decisions."
Garber asked Ross his opinion of HMOs (health management organizations).
"I think HMOs are OK," Ross said, "but they are not for everybody. There is no the approach."
Some senior legislators were concerned about a Sacramento newspaper story criticizing them for measures that could be considered self-serving, notably proposals for free fishing licenses and exceptions to some state park camping rules for older persons.
Don Sousa, senior advocacy consultant for the Los Angeles County Agency on Aging, discounted the criticism. "Those bills were voted down quickly," he said. "The frivolous bills are cut out very quickly."
Senior Assemblywoman Lois Hamer of Panorama City reflected her concern for the general populace by earnestly lobbying for a nuclear test ban treaty.