By Kaylee Poche and Ryan Noonan, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Sen. Eric LaFleur on Tuesday withdrew one of the most talked-about bills of the legislative session–his proposal to allow 19- and 20-year-olds to drink legally–amid fears that the state could lose federal highway funds.
LaFleur, a Democrat from Ville Platte, said he thought his bill, which would have required parental consent and alcohol education courses, would have led to more responsible drinking.
But state officials and other lawmakers said the state risked losing up to $600 million in highway construction funds under federal laws meant to encourage safer driving.
Articles detailing LaFleur’s bill garnered hundreds of shares and comments on social media, and users had mixed reactions about the proposal.
“The age of adulthood is all over the place,” Shane Purl commented on Facebook. “If a person can join the military, vote, get married, buy a home, and go to prison at or before the age of eighteen, then they should be able to drink alcohol, or just make everything 21.”
“No, no, no, we have enough issues with our youth this will only get worse,” Sharrone Monteith, another Facebook user, wrote. “Higher college drinking rate, higher sexual crimes against younger victims, higher drunk driving rate and higher car insurance…how would we be winning?”
LaFleur said he did not think the bill would have increased drinking at all and instead would have encouraged responsible drinking, citing the alcohol education courses young adults required to obtain the certificate.
“I mean, I understand their argument, I just believe that those that want to access alcohol are accessing it today, and they are doing it now,” LaFleur said. “So, I don’t think there is going to be really any increase in access. There will be a certain level of responsibility with that access that doesn’t exist today.”
Because the bill would not technically lower the drinking age, LaFleur said he did not think meeting federal highway fund requirements would be a problem.
“It doesn’t really change the law,” LaFleur said. “People think all of a sudden I’m doing something different–I’m not. The only difference really is does your mother or father have to be with you when you go to listen to a band so you can drink a beer.”
But several committee members and Juana Marine-Lombard, the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, voiced concerns over whether the federal government would pull those funds.
“ATC, as far as federal funding, is just the tip of the iceberg,” Marine-Lombard said. “State police receive way more money in the highway safety grant, and Department of Transportation has something like $600 million to lose. When we’re sitting on a fiscal cliff and you’re talking about risking millions over this, where does the money come from to fund DOT, ATC and state police?”
LaFleur said, however, that his bill contained a provision that would have nullified the plan to let 19- and 20-year-olds drink legally if it resulted in the Department of Transportation losing its federal highway dollars. Similar amendments could have been made for other departments, LaFleur said.
Paula Zachary, a volunteer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving whose 19-year-old son died from drunk driving, was prepared to testify against LaFleur’s bill before it was withdrawn.
“I actually talked to him, and I asked him not to bring the bill back up,” Zachary said. “It’s going to eventually say, ‘Okay, if 19-year-olds can do this, why not 17- and 18-year-olds?’ It’s going to gradually go on a downslide.”
“As a parent and a part of Louisiana, it is super dangerous,” she added. “We’ve got to save our kids. We’ve got to do whatever we can.”
LaFleur said he would continue to work on the bill and will likely propose it again next year.
“Change like this sometimes takes a little while,” LaFleur said.