June 1, 2005
MADISON, Wis. - One Wisconsin lawmaker figures if the U.S. military trusts 19-year-olds with a $10 million tank, then the state should trust them with a beer.
State Rep. Mark Pettis, a Republican who served in the Navy, is pushing a bill that would drop the drinking age to 19 for Wisconsin soldiers - but only if the federal government agrees it will not yank an estimated $50 million a year in highway aid.
A federal law ties federal highway dollars to compliance by the states with the required drinking age of 21.
"We're treating these young men and women as adults when they're at war. But we treat them like teenagers when they're here in the states," he said.
Pettis admits his proposal will be a tough sell unless Wisconsin gets the federal government's approval - or at least permission to start a pilot program to prove it will not cause more accidents or other problems opponents associate with a younger drinking age.
Wisconsin transportation officials say the federal government has told them there is no process to apply for a waiver from the drinking age requirement, and creating one would likely take an act of Congress.
The bill would create an exemption for 19- and 20-year-old soldiers from Wisconsin - but not for soldiers from out of state. A valid military ID along with a Wisconsin driver's license or identification card would be required.
A committee is expected to send the bill to the full Assembly for consideration next week, and Gov. Jim Doyle has said he supports it - as long as Wisconsin does not lose any federal highway money.
The Wisconsin chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving has lobbied against the bill. Its executive director, Kari Kinnard, said statistics show there have been fewer highway fatalities, injuries and other problems associated with alcohol since the mandatory minimum went into effect in the 1980s.
She also said research shows the brain has not fully developed until people reach age 21. "It's for their own protection," Kinnard said.