In a legislative session that has had little good fiscal news, a bill is making its way through the Maryland General Assembly that would save senior citizens an estimated $300 a year.
The Golden Age Card discount program envisions a network of merchants throughout the state who would give discounts to persons over 65 or who are totally and permanently disabled. The state would sell the cards to senior citizens for $1 and use that money to pay a full-time staff person and the cost of printing and mailing a directory of business participants.
Del. Luiz Simmons (R-Montgomery County), the bill's principal sponsor, believes it's a perfect way for legislators to provide a benefit that will not cost taxpayers money, and points to the success similar programs have had in Ohio, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and New York.
The amount of discount and the kinds of goods or services included would be at the discretion of merchants and the success of the program would hinge on widespread voluntary participation.
"This bill would only set up a mechanism. It suggests but does not mandate. If competition is keen and the margin of profit is low to begin with, you wouldn't be inclined to give discounts," said Jeanette Walke of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association.
She said the association was not taking a position on the bill. The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, however, is supporting the legislation, and has offered to publicize the program to area merchants.
Montgomery County already issues senior citizen discount identification cards, but no longer publishes a directory of participating businesses because of the cost and the difficulty of keeping it updated. At one time as many as 400 area stores offered discounts, but the country's Office on Aging does not monitor or solicit their participation now. The most widespread use of the county's senior citizen card is for free adult education courses.
"When merchants enter the program, they might offer a 10 percent discount on some products, but then they modify the discount to their needs. Two weeks later the senior citizen will go in and the merchant will say 'we can't afford that discount anymore.' When it's the option of the merchant, there's no way to predict what the saving will be," said Beatrice Wofsy of the county's Office on Aging.
"And if a merchant is in the directory and offers a discount, it's not necessarily the lowest price, so it's caveat emptor I'm afraid," said Wofsy.
The state Office on Aging, which will administer the program starting July 1 if the bill passes the Senate, estimates that 175,000 persons will apply for Golden Age Cards the first year, 80,000 the second year and 10,000 each year thereafter.
The program is supposed to be financially self-supporting the first two years and cost about $25,000 a year to run after that.
Ohio's Golden Buckeye Card program is cited frequently as a model, with its 30,000 stores and one million senior citizens participating.
The Ohio program, however, was started in 1976 with a CETA-funded field staff of nearly 100 persons. After CETA funding stopped in 1978, the state has paid for 12 area coordinators and three administrative employes in Columbus. The program has an annual budget of about $500,000 and individual directories are published for the 88 countries in the state.
Matthew Tayback, state director on aging, said a statewide directory would be issued once a year, or possibly once every two years to reduce the cost.