Despite some bipartisan support for the idea of lowering Wisconsin’s drinking age to 19, regional legislators recognize the proposal faces a significant financial hurdle.
Under current federal law, passed in 1984, any state with a drinking age lower than 21 can lose 8 percent of its federal highway funding. For Wisconsin, that would translate to a loss of $53.7 million this year.
“We can’t jeopardize our federal transportation funds,” said state Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, referring to the bill unveiled Wednesday to lower the drinking age as “not practical at this time.”
State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, also said the bill was impractical and thus has no chance of passing even though plenty of people would like to see a lower drinking age. She called the measure a “catchy political ploy.”
Despite the highway funding obstacle, the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, has said the idea deserves consideration. He told WISC-TV that a “waiver mechanism” might be a way around the drinking age requirement. Jarchow also maintained the bill would save “countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars “ enforcing drinking laws in the state.
Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer and owner of a supper club, also said the issue is worthy of discussion, although he wouldn’t vote for the change if it meant losing federal highway dollars.
“I feel bad for some of these 19- and 20-year-old legal adults who are working full time or in the military,” Summerfield said. “They’re old enough to do everything else. Why not this?”
Drunken driving rates have dropped substantially since Wisconsin adopted the 21-year-old minimum drinking age in 1986, he said, suggesting that a lower drinking age might even reduce binge drinking by encouraging young adults to consume alcohol in responsible settings in the presence of licensed bartenders.
Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, indicated he was open to discussing the idea.
“I tend to be of the mindset that if you are old enough to enlist in the military and fight for our country, you should also be old enough to have a beer,” Wachs said. “That said, we’ve had a legal drinking age of 21 for the last 30 years and we have seen a significant decline in alcohol-related vehicle deaths. I expect that this bill will create an opportunity for us to have thoughtful discussions about the impact of a change in the law between industry officials, Wisconsinites and public health experts.”
Another key hurdle is that Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester has indicated he doesn’t support the bill.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving issued a statement saying its opposition to lowering the drinking age goes beyond political and financial considerations.
“Countless studies have shown we would lose more people — many more each year on our roads as a result of lowering the drinking age from 21,” MADD regional director Doug Scoles said in the statement. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than 500 additional lives (people between the ages of 18 and 20) would be lost each year in the U.S. if the drinking age were lowered to 18. It would be irresponsible and quite frankly hard to understand why anyone would support, or even condone, an action that would bring about such horrific results as this.”
Meanwhile, Dino Amundson, president of the Eau Claire City/County Tavern League, said he supports the idea out of principle even though he doesn’t believe the proposed change would provide a major financial boost for the overall hospitality industry. It would, however, likely benefit owners of Water Street bars frequented by college students, he said.
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