Wisconsin bill seeks to lower drinking age to 19

A bill proposed by lawmakers in Wisconsin aims to lower the beer-loving state’s drinking age to 19. However it will face some though obstacles along the way, including the possibility of losing part of the state’s federal funding.

The bill, circulated Wednesday by three Republican lawmakers including the former president of the Wisconsin Tavern League, faces an uphill battle as it needs the support of key GOP lawmakers.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who plays a central role in determining which bills are brought up for vote, has said he would not support the bill. Neither the leader of the Wisconsin Senate nor Gov. Scott Walker have voiced their opinion on the bill.

Under the proposed bill, the legal drinking age would drop to 19. However, if the bill were to pass, there is a possibility of Wisconsin losing some of its federal highway money.

Current federal law, passed in 1984, said any state with a drinking age lower than 21 can lose 8 percent of federal highway funding.

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In Wisconsin, that would be a $53.7 million reduction this year alone – enough cash to buy about 6.7 million six-packs of Miller Lite.

Rep. Adam Jarchow of Balsam Lake, the bill’s main sponsor, made the point that 19-year-olds can enlist in the military, but cannot enjoy an alcoholic beverage.

Jarchow said he picked age 19 to make sure high school students were not drinking and "causing unnecessary distractions while still in school."

The bill also would save "countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars" enforcing drinking laws in the state, especially on college campuses, he said.

"Those efforts could be used for other important issues such as drug abuse and sexual assaults," Jarchow said.

Even though the drinking age has been 21 in Wisconsin since 1986, state law does permit an underage person to legally have a beer with their parents at a bar or restaurant. Wisconsin is also the only state in the country where first-offense drunken driving are treated as a traffic offense and not a crime.

A study done by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation in 2015 showed Wisconsin was the heaviest drinking state in the U.S., NPR reported.

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Other co-sponsors of the bills are Republican Reps. Rob Swearingen, the owner of a northern Wisconsin supper club and past president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, and Rep. Cindi Duchow, of Delafield.

Republican Rep. Joel Kleefisch, who does not drink, said he supported the measure.

"If you can sign up to give your life for this country," Kleefisch said, "you ought to be able to have a beer."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.