AARP Out to Show Clout At State Level
By Bair S Walker , Senior Writer
AARP, a seniors' advocacy group whose political clout is respected and feared on Capitol Hill, is looking to wield similar influence in each of the 50 states.
Formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, AARP presently has lobbyists and volunteer staffers in nearly 20 states. However, about a year ago a decision was made to have a lobbying presence in every state by the end of 2001, along with Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, says Cheryl Matheis, director of AARP's state legislative activities.
"I think the world has become a great deal more sophisticated, and even state legislatures have become more sophisticated in the last decade," Matheis says. "The whole issue of state/federal interplay has become acute. It's not only that states are laboratories for public policy, but states are concerned that if they don't act on something, the federal government is likely to."AARP's increased emphasis on impacting state legislation should have no affect on its federal advocacy efforts, Matheis told Stateline.org
Her organization presently has lobbying offices in California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, Georgia, New Mexico, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, South Carolina and Tennessee.
A decade ago, AARP was a highly centralized organization that awaited marching orders from its Washington, D.C., headquarters before doing anything. "Even our staff who supported state efforts used to be based in headquarters," Matheis recalls. "Then, a decision was made to decentralize."
Established in 1958 and listing 34 million members on its rolls, AARP already has long had volunteer workers in every state. Some of them now work side-by-side with paid, full-time lobbyists, or `advocacy staff,' as they're known in AARPspeak.
The result of this heightened, state-based focus?
"Thus far, it's given us incredible benefits," Matheis boasts. "In states where we have offices, we have racked up tremendous legislative accomplishments through the combined efforts of our volunteers and staff."AARP doesn't have a lobbying office in Vermont, which is served by a regional office located in Boston. Even so, AARP's efforts to mold legislative opinion in Vermont's capital, Montpelier, are readily seen, says Will Fleming with the Central Vermont Council on Aging.
"They (AARP) seem to be involved in the decision-making process up there," Fleming says. "They just recently started a campaign called Sign the Pledge -- they're giving out cards and having people fill them out to explain their stories regarding out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs."
Janet Trautwein, director of state governmental affairs for the National Association of Health Underwriters, has also observed AARP become more of a statehouse presence.
"They're definitely in state capitals," Trautwein says. "They're more visible because their issues are more in the political forefront right now." She notes that AARP has been influential when it comes to long-term care, Medigap and Medicare legislation."
"I wouldn't say they have the same level of influence that they have in Washington," Trautwein cautions.
AARP is not without its critics, some of whom charge that the organization's focus is determined more by business interests than by grass-roots membership. And even though AARP is nonpartisan, some say its approach seems too liberal to effectively represent all seniors.
Matheis prefers to concentrate on her organization's state-level strengths and successes.
"We have the ability of a big organization to pull together research and surveys -- things that persuade people to support legislation," she says.
"We were very instrumental this year in enacting a prescription drug program in New York which, once it goes into affect, will be the biggest low-income prescription drug initiative," Matheis adds. "Last year, we were effective in passing telemarketing fraud in 21 states. We've been very active in a number of states on affordable utilities issues, particularly Indiana, Michigan and Ohio."
Beyond those issues, AARP also seeks to affect state legislation affecting nursing home care, predatory lending, private insurance products, age discrimination and the privacy of health and financial data, Matheis.
The increased emphasis on state politics coincides with a move by AARP to redefine its image at a time when many Baby Boomers are reaching 50. In addition to scrapping its American Association of Retired Persons moniker, the organization has begun to feature younger looking individuals on the covers of its publications.