Wisconsin Debates Drinking Age of 19

Wisconsin may become the wettest state in the union if a new bill establishing a drinking age of 19 becomes law.

Should the bill, AB 259, pass the state's assembly and be signed by Governor Tommy G. Thompson, Wisconsin will become the only state to have a drinking age below 21.

Before 1986, several states had lower drinking ages, but the federal government forced them to change to 21 by threatening to withhold highway funding.

"We're not going to put up with federal blackmail," State Sen. Joseph Wineke (D-Verona) said in a phone interview from his Wisconsin office yesterday. "Some state has got to take a stand."

Students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison are taking a stand as well.

Jason J. Hanson, the head of a new student group called END 21 at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is spearheading a letter-writing campaign for the bill.

Hanson said he believes "the bill will probably die." But he expressed hope that his group may have an influence over the long term.

"When the federal government tried to use funds as influence on a motorcycle helmet law," Hanson said, "Governor Thompson said that Wisconsin would not pass a law. He was influenced by a motorcycle lobby and 20,000 voters employed by [Milwaukee-based] Harley-Davidson. My goal is to start a similar movement."

After passing committee last week by a vote of 5-3, however, the bill now faces opposition in the Wisconsin Assembly.

Mary A. Lazich (R-New Berlin), a member of theCommittee on Excise and Fees, indicated that shedisagrees with Wineke. She voted against AB 259 incommittee.

In a television interview after the vote shesaid: "Loss of federal highway dollars, highaccident rates...all tell us that 21 is the rightthing to do," Lazich said in a televisioninterview after the vote. "Young adults grow a lotbetween 18 and 21. Young adults need money at thatage for school, not liquor and gambling."

Lieutenant Governor Scott McCallum said thatThompson will not sign the bill if it passes. Hebelieves, however, that a veto will not benecessary. "The bill came out of committee but itis not going anywhere," McCallum said yesterday."[It] won't get through the legislature, the votesjust aren't there."

Wineke said he agrees with the lieutenantgovernor's assessment.

"Unfortunately, if the vote were taken todaythe bill would fail," Wineke said. "This is thekind of bill that if everyone could vote secretly,it would pass."

Wineke also charged that Thompson had changedhis position on the possibility of a lowerdrinking age. The state senator said the governorhad taken the opposite position at a fundraiserheld for him by the Wisconsin Tavern Leagueearlier this year