California Senior Legislature gives older voters a forum

``I went in as a complete novice,'' says Betty Erickson, 65, of rural Nevada County. ``I had never even been to a session of the regular Legislature. I had no idea what happened to a bill after it's proposed.'' But three years ago, Ms. Erickson got a crash course in moving and shaking when she was elected to one of 120 seats in the California Senior Legislature. This October, when the state's ``regular'' legislators are in recess, Erickson and other seniors will get down to governmental business in a special five-day session.

Meeting in the regular legislative chambers of the State Capitol, 40 elected senior senators and 80 elected senior assembly persons (each of them at least 60 years of age) debate the priorities of California's older citizens. Twenty-three other states have senior legislatures, and 17 others have somewhat similar organizations, according to the California Commission on Aging.

California's 120 senior legislators are elected to two-year terms on the third Tuesday in March of odd-numbered years. Only registered voters 60 or older can vote, using polls located at senior centers and other places likely to generate maximum participation. Elections are coordinated by the state's 33 Area Agencies on Aging.

Elected senior legislators receive no salaries. A $325,000 ``California Fund for Senior Citizens,'' acquired through a checkoff on state income tax forms, pays for their accommodations and meals in Sacramento, and for travel expenses. (Should the tax checkoff generate a greater amount, the balance is donated to direct service programs selected by the California Commission on Aging.)

Participating in the Senior Legislature is an honor accompanied by lots of hard work. Senior legislators must be ready to go by 7:30 a.m., boarding a bus from their hotel to the State Capitol. They breakfast at one of the Capitol's cafeterias and get to committee meetings by 9 o'clock.

The first day, each senior legislator joins one of five committees: Income and Security, Federal, State, Transportation, or Health. Each senior legislator is supposed to submit at least one proposed piece of legislation, with each of the bills reviewed by state legislative counsel. The attorneys make necessary legal wording changes and merge similar bills, which are then considered co-sponsored.

Fledgling bills are also reviewed by a state legislative analyst, who determines the financial impact and other important effects the measures would have if made into law. Next morning, the bills are routed to appropriate committees for discussion.

``If you're doing a good job, you have to be aware of all the bills assigned to your committee so you can speak intelligently on them,'' says Erickson, whose interest in appropriations led her to join the Income and Security Committee.

Committees debate the merits of each bill individually. ``We throw some out for a variety of reasons.'' Changes are made, and legislative counsels again work through the night to create a stack of correctly worded bills for seniors to consider in two days of actual legislative sessions.

An elected member of the state's ``regular'' Legislature conducts the sessions, letting seniors speak in favor of and against various bills.

``These are senior citizens, and the attentiveness ... you don't see people dozing off,'' Erickson says.

Seniors rank bills according to importance, choosing the top 10 state bills and top five federal bills, voting by secret ballot. Their ballots are tabulated and ``regular'' lawmakers are found to sponsor the bills.

Heading home from Sacramento, senior legislators get to work lobbying for the 10 priority bills, as well as polling constituents on measures to introduce the following year. Additional travel, phone, and other expenses in the cause of this effort are paid for out of their own pockets.

The lobbying effort is far from idle. Since the program got started in 1981, 75 percent of the bills designated as California Senior Legislature priorities have been passed by state lawmakers and signed into law.

These bills have covered such issues as nursing home reform, adult day health care, transit for the elderly and handicapped, elder abuse shelters, crimes against the elderly, Medi-Cal assistance, mobile home occupancy and other senior housing issues, and increased nutrition funding, among others.

Asked if she faced any problems during her stint as a senior legislator, Erickson admits to ``heading down the wrong corridors'' of the Capitol a few times before she learned her way around. A veteran now, she obviously relishes her role.

``There are no pitfalls. It's all pluses. It's an extremely useful tool for seniors.''

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