As state-designated advocates for North Carolina’s older residents, the Senior Tar Heel Legislature has a 30-year history of advocacy — and relatively limited clout in recent times. Now its leaders are working to become a more aggressive, diverse force for change in legislative sessions to come.
The General Assembly created the body in July 1993 with the passage of a bill sponsored by then-Sen. Bev. Perdue, later an aging-friendly governor. The senior legislature, with room for a delegate and an alternate from all 100 counties, was charged with getting a handle on older North Carolinians’ most pressing needs and urging state legislators to pass legislation to their benefit.
“We had quite a few early delegates who were former legislators, people who knew the political system. And some of them were county commissioners and had a political background,” said Woody Brinson of Kernersville, who is unopposed to assume the role of speaker in an October session.
“So, in the early 10 to 15 years, we were much more effective than what we have been in the last few years.”
Norma Duncan of western North Carolina, a longtime state employee and outgoing speaker of the Senior Tar Heel Legislature, summed up the group’s record during a General Assembly session that, this year, has yet to produce a budget.
“To be perfectly honest, I do not foresee any of our priorities being included in this budget,” Duncan said in an email.
As top priorities for the current session, the group asked that the legislature agree to devote:
The past 10 to 12 years of Republican control of the state legislature have presented a challenge, leaders of the organization said. However, Brinson said, advocates for older people can’t place blame on the General Assembly for the typically slow pace of legislation involving the aging sector.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper should be in the trenches, too, he said.
“He’s provided a little bit of housing assistance, and that’s about it,” Brinson said. “But when it comes to Personal Needs Allowance (spending money for Medicaid-paid nursing home residents), Adult Protective Services, senior centers, ombudsmen, these types of things — you don’t see him stepping up. And that has been very discouraging to quite a few of us.”
Mary Bethel, a former state Division of Aging and Adult Services liaison to the senior legislature, said Cooper deserves credit for initiatives such as firing up a plan on aging that will coordinate efforts among state agencies, nonprofit groups and the private sector.
“Seeing Gov. Cooper initiating this NC multisector plan on aging is a good thing, a step in the right direction,” said Bethel, the board chairman of the North Carolina Coalition on Aging, a separate statewide group. “Hopefully it can help to lay a good foundation for whoever’s in office.”
However, to get a voice on the steering committee of Cooper’s “All Ages, All Stages” effort, Senior Tar Heel Legislature leaders had to make their voices heard by Joyce Massey-Smith, director of the Division of Aging and Adult Services. That resulted in the recent appointment of Bill Lamb, of Raleigh, a veteran advocate on aging issues.
After the 1993 formation of the Senior Tar Heel Legislature, the group could claim by 1997 that it had helped bills become law that increased funding for Home and Community Care Block Grants, for senior centers and for the program called Elderly and Disabled Medical Transportation — all still among continuing needs.
Early on, the senior legislature employed muscle from advocates such as its first speaker, Mary Odom, of Wagram, who also notably was the first woman elected to both chambers of the state General Assembly. Another effective leader was Althea Taylor-Jones, a gerontologist and professor at Winston-Salem State University and a longtime volunteer with the state’s AARP operation.
Older North Carolinians could use this sort of representation to get bills through the legislature during a period when more attention has been going to GOP-backed priorities such as devoting as much as a half billion in grants for parents to send children to private schools.
“It’s difficult to accomplish an agenda when you’re competing against lots of needs,” Bethel said. “You’ve got to lay a foundation for things. With all of us working together and being on the same page, we can have positive effects.”
North Carolina’s population of people 60 and older — those whose interests the senior legislature aims to represent — will grow as much as 40% by 2040, state demographers say, making “silver” voters an ever more influential sector. However, older blue and red voters tend to split down the middle in North Carolina, as they did in younger years, senior legislature leaders say.
Brinson says increasing the effectiveness of the Senior Tar Heel Legislature will rely in part on people like Greene County resident Elliotte Ashburn, the upcoming deputy speaker pro tempore. He’s a passionate voice for causes such as increasing older North Carolinians’ access to the cyber world.
“One of my heartbeat issues is high-speed internet,” Ashburn said. “And I’m committed to having that deployed throughout our rural communities in ways that our communities of color have access to and can use it, and that means a wide variety of things. It’s not only the installation of equipment, but it also means training and helping people understand what its value is and how they can use that high-speed internet to better their lives and improve their health and well-being.”
Ashburn also sees the importance to the senior legislature of building stronger links to older people of color across the state.
“I think it’s something that has been, not really been ignored, but hasn’t been a priority,” he said. “It’s high on the list of conversations that need to be had for a number of reasons, and it’s one of the things I want to put my attention on — what I can help do to get people engaged in that conversation?”
Leaders of the group say that some attitudes of older people that might be thought laudable — self-reliance and a nonconfrontational stance — sometimes make it hard for them to receive help and to speak up to people in power.
“There’s a tendency for folks to think that accepting assistance means that you can’t take care of yourself, that you’re not able to,” Ashburn said. “That bothers a lot of people. We’re looking forward to the next couple of years making a significant difference.”
Brinson said the organization will have to push to build contacts with legislators who can move the needle and who have shown interest in aging matters — including Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Kernersville, and Reps. Donna White, R-Clayton; Donny Lambeth, R-Winston-Salem; and Jim Burgin, R-Angier. As Republicans, they are near the power centers of budget writing.
Keeping in touch with these kinds of decision-makers is vital, and it will require some in the Senior Tar Heel Legislature to work beyond their comfort levels while looking to touch future budgets, Brinson said.
“I’m not trying to sound negative toward these members, but a lot of them do not feel comfortable talking to elected officials,” he said. “They do not feel comfortable talking to public groups and not really comfortable with advocacy.
“We started working on that about six months ago — advocacy training. And it will definitely be part of every one of our sessions for the next two years.”
Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended UNC-Chapel Hill and worked at newspapers in Tennessee and at the Raleigh News & Observer.
North Carolina Health News is an independent, nonpartisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.