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Vermont Could Be a Test Site for McCardell's Drinking-Age Experiment

Local Matters


Published April 8, 2009 at 7:30 a.m.

Looks like Vermont legislators may be moving from one controversy to another. Lobbying firm Kimbell Sherman Ellis, which has been working on the campaign for marriage equality, is now nudging lawmakers to consider another hot-button issue: lowering the drinking age to 18.

The lobbyists have been retained by a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that got started in Vermont a few years ago. Choose Responsibility, headed by former Middlebury College President John McCardell, is returning to its roots as it seeks to build state-by-state support for revisions in the federal drinking-age law.

Congress and the Reagan administration agreed in 1984 to withhold 10 percent of highway funds for states that refused to raise their drinking age from 18 to 21. No state has since dared to sacrifice money for roads by making its legal age for drinking the same as that for marrying, voting and joining the military.

Choose Responsibility wants the Vermont legislature to call on Congress to grant exemptions from the highway-funding penalty for states that lower their drinking age on a conditional, temporary basis. The resolution to be pushed by Kimbell Sherman Ellis contains provisions requiring 18-, 19- and 20-year-old Vermonters to attend anti-alcohol abuse classes and obtain a license before being able to drink legally. The initiative would also be framed as an experiment to be conducted over a projected 6-year period.

Vermont has been chosen as the likeliest laboratory because of its “willingness to look at difficult issues and to act as a leader in progressive policy ideas,” says Choose Responsibility Executive Director Michael Giuliani. The group’s origins in Vermont also factored into the decision. McCardell, who serves as Choose Responsibility’s president, “does know a lot of people in the state,” Giuliani notes.

About 15 Vermont House members have expressed initial interest in the resolution, says Nick Kimbell, an associate in the lobbying firm and the son of one of its founders. Kimbell declined to supply any of the lawmakers’ names, however, saying the effort is just getting underway. The lobbyists have yet to pitch the proposal to Vermont’s three-member congressional delegation, he added.

But Kimbell and Giuliani nevertheless suggest that the legislature could approve the resolution before its scheduled adjournment next month. That appears to be more a wish than a forecast, given lawmakers’ past performance on the issue.

A bill introduced in 2005 to lower Vermont’s drinking age went nowhere. A similar measure offered in the current session has attracted five sponsors in the 150-member House. And a proposal simply to set up a study group on Vermont’s drinking age failed to make it out of a Senate committee.

Chittenden County Democrat Hinda Miller, sponsor of the study-group measure, says the new resolution could find some support in the Vermont Senate. But because “we’re so wrapped up in the marriage equality debate,” it’s impossible at this stage to gauge the number of potential votes for the drinking-age resolution, Miller adds.

Legislative initiatives of this sort do not need the approval of the governor in order to be adopted. Gov. James Douglas could, in any event, prove less hostile to lowering Vermont’s drinking age than to permitting same-sex marriage. Douglas said through his spokesman in 2005 that he “can see the logic” of returning Vermont to the age-18 standard if it the state doesn’t face the loss of highway funds as a result of such a move.

Kimbell Sherman Ellis will still have to overcome powerful forces on the other side of the issue. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which was instrumental in enacting the 1984 federal law, would be sure to campaign vigorously in Vermont against any move to roll back the drinking age to 18. But Choose Responsibility has some powerful counterarguments, which McCardell makes persuasively. Two weeks ago, he held his own on “The Colbert Report.”

Miller says she’s “absolutely” willing to help lead the fight for the resolution. She notes that legal drinking is the only one of the coming-of-age eligibilities that doesn’t take effect at 18. And it’s foolish to believe the 21-year limit effectively discourages underage drinking, she adds.

“I have teenage kids and I know what they and their friends do,” Miller says. “I’m a believer in education. Let them take courses in high school on responsible drinking just like they do on driving. We really need to come to terms with reality on teenage drinking.”