Jerry Kopel

It took five legislative years filled with bitter debate, abusive use of the House rules, and lots of fist-shaking before the Colorado legislature finally raised the drinking age to 21. Rep. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, now hopes to reverse that decision in 1998 through a bill to allow (with some restrictions) persons aged 18 to 21 to drink and enjoy 3.2 beer.

The battle began in 1983 when Rep. Jim Robb, R-Grand Junction, (who is today a federal magistrate) sponsored HB 1159 to raise the drinking age to 21. Robb's bill was purely on the merits. There was no legislation from Congress demanding the age change.

The bill was sent to House Judiciary where committee members decided passage would cost the state $4.8 million a year in lost tax revenues (from sales of 3.2 beer) and HB 1159 was one of 16 measures postponed indefinitely in House Judiciary on May 12th, 1983.

Fighting the measure from the start was the "Association of 3.2 Beer Licensees" and their lobbyist, Clarke Watson, representing some of 1,400 businesses that claimed to sell only 3.2 beer.

Meanwhile, HB 1448 by Rep. John Hamlin, R-Ft. Morgan, a "clean-up" bill with the enticing title "Concerning Beverages Containing Alcohol" passed the House 61 to 0.

During Senate debate, Senators Tilman Bishop, R-Grand Junction, Claire Traylor, R-Wheat Ridge, and Joel Hefley, R-Colo. Springs, successfully amended the Hamlin bill to raise the drinking age for 3.2 beer to 19. Hefley was Hamlin's Senate sponsor. The House adhered to its position (no raise in the drinking age) 37 to 27, the Senate refused to buy the House version (only 17 "yes" votes, 3 excused) and the entire bill died.

Robb came back in 1984 with HB 1243, the same measure as in 1983 with one addition. He would place the drinking-age issue on the November, 1984 election ballot. His Senate sponsor was Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Loveland. HB 1243 passed the Health Committee, but went to Finance Committee where it died without a hearing, one of 17 bills reported as postponed indefinitely on March 30.

Meanwhile, on July 17, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a new law which penalized states without a 21-year-old drinking age. After Oct.l, 1986, there would be a loss in Colorado of 5 percent of road construction funds ($9 million), and after Oct.l, 1987, a loss of 10 percent ($18 million) of those same funds.

In 1985, Jim Robb was no longer in the legislature, having declined to seek re-election. His battle flag was taken up by Rep. Bill Owens, R-Aurora, in the House and Sen. Allard in the Senate. First bill up was Allard's SB 41 to raise the drinking age to 21. After four hours of testimony, most of it favorable, State Affairs killed the measure 6 to 3.

Over in the House, Owens' bill, HB 1283, followed the Robb approach by putting the issue on the November, 1986 election ballot. The measure passed out of Local Affairs and then passed Appropriations Committee, ending up in House Rules Committee, which was generally known as the "Speaker's Committee".

If a measure that the speaker didn't like got out of committee, he had it killed in Rules, at least until 1989. Colorado voters passed the GAVEL (Give A Vote to Every Legislator) amendment to the state constitution in 1988, which wiped out the House Rules Committee. But back in 1985, House Speaker Bev Bledsoe, R-Hugo, told the newspapers "I resent blackmail very much, and that's what I call it (the federal mandate), blackmail."

Joining Bledsoe in the 4-3 vote killing the bill in Rules were Rep. Bonnie Allison, R-Edgewater, Rep. Chris Paulson, R-Englewood, and Rep. Carol Taylor-Little, R-Arvada.

The 1986 battle over HB 1076, the measure by Rep. Owens to raise the drinking age to 21, closely resembled a pinball-machine game, where the steel ball is heading downhill out of play until the player knocks it back onto the game board.

HB 1076 was first heard in House State Affairs which unanimously sent it to Finance Committee (the "lost revenue" issue first raised in 1983) which passed it 5 to 4 to Rules Committee.

Instead of scheduling the bill for House debate on second reading, Rules Committee sent the bill to Appropriations Committee, which according to the Rocky Mountain News, brought this response from Owens, "I'm starting to feel a kind of fondness for this plucky little bill."

Appropriations Committee sent it back to Rules Committee. On Thursday, March 14, Rules Committee deadlocked 5 to 5 on a motion to send the bill to the House floor. The key vote was by Rep. Bob Bowen, D-Denver against the measure. He had voted for the measure in Rules the previous year.

That decision, Beverly Kinard of the Colorado Federation of Parents told News reporter Berny Morson, "proves that Colorado is a pro-drug state and is controlled by the alcohol industry."

Several days later, Rules Committee sent the bill to State Affairs, and that committee, which had been the first committee to hear the bill and had voted unanimously to move it along on Feb. 13th, postponed the measure indefinitely on April 2d. This was the SIXTH House committee to vote on the bill in 1986.

So now we come to 1987. The federal restrictions are in place, but they can be removed if Colorado passes the bill. Rep. Owens introduced HB 1320 with Allard as his Senate sponsor. The bill went to Local Government which passed it 9 to 2 to Rules, which passed it to Finance Committee, which passed it back to Rules, which this time sent it to the floor for debate.

The bill passed the House 55 to 9 with an amendment by Rep. Tom Ratterree, R-Colo. Springs (who worked in public relations for Pikes Peak Distributing, a Colorado Springs Anheuser-Busch beer wholesaler) to lower the minimum age from 21 to 19 if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal sanctions.

The Senate passed the bill on third reading 24 to 9, changing the effective date. The House concurred and repassed the bill April 29th on a 52 to 6 vote.

News reporter John Sanko quoted Gov. Romer's comments as he signed the bill: "If it were not for my concerns about loss of life and the threat the state of Colorado faces from the federal government, I would not have signed this law. It is my belief that 18-year-olds are adults and should be treated as such."

Reading newspaper accounts of the five year battle, it struck me that Owens handled himself well, never blasting away at his fellow Republicans who gave Owens every motivation possible to do so. The same five-year review convinces me that the increase in drinking age to 21 did reduce fatalities and injuries in states that had made the adjustment.

The two sides could be characterised as proponents who truly believed increasing the drinking age would save lives, joined by others who could care less, but didn't want to lose federal money. Opponents mainly hated having to obey a federal mandate to gain highway funds, joined by some legislators who slavishly follow the liquor lobby on such bills, and others who didn't believe the age change would save lives.

Colorado's love and hate affair with persons aged 18 to 21 is truely schizophrenic. Example: One argument used by opponents of the higher age limit was that anyone 18 years old is old enough to vote and to serve in the military.

When the proposed 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was being debated in 1971, the country was deep into the Vietnam War with 18 year old Americans dying in combat. The Amendment was to allow anyone 18 or older to vote in federal and state elections.

The state legislature ratified the federal amendment, House Concurrent Resolution 1010, but at the same legislative session, we revised the state election laws to allow persons 18 to 21 to vote for federal and NOT state offices. That split became unlawful once the 26th Amendment was ratified by 38 states June 30, 1971.

On the issue of 3.2 beer and 18 year olds drinking and purchasing the beverage, Colorado had a long history of permission beginning in 1935, two years after the end of prohibition. It was the law for 52 years.

Contrast that with a Colorado law that is often overlooked during debates of this nature. It is entitled "Definitions" and under CRS 2-4-401 (6) "Minor" means any person who has not attained the age of twenty-one years, unless a statute expressly provides a different age.

The statute begins: "The following definitions apply to every statute, unless the context otherwise requires." So whenever you see the word "minor" in a statute, it means under 21 unless the statute gives a different age.

Can 18 year olds gamble? Colorado allows anyone 18 to buy lottery tickets, bet at the race tracks and play bingo, but anyone under 21 cannot gamble at Colorado casinos or work in casino gambling areas.

If Tupa is to be successful in his 1998 battle he needs to contact the only three remaining legislators who voted in 1987 against Sen. Owens' measure. They are Sens. Jim Rizzuto, D-La Junta, David Wattenberg, R-Walden, and Bill Thiebaut, D-Pueblo.


Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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