A Virginia Senate committee, angry at what legislators said was Gov. Charles S. Robb's refusal to compromise, today killed two Robb-supported bills that would have raised Virginia's beer-drinking age from 18 to 21, an action that they said threatens the governor's proposal.
Another bill that would raise the drinking age to 21 has passed the House of Delegates, but it will have to come before the same committee that today killed the two similiar measures.
Senators who regarded a minimum age 21 for drinking as unfair and unenforceable said they had tried to negotiate a compromise with Robb, but he rejected their proposal. Robb's bill cleared the House by a wide margin Monday after his staff mounted an intense lobbying campaign to defeat proposals to raise the age to 19.
"The governor apparently didn't feel it was necessary to compromise," said Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax) after his bill, identical to the Robb measure, and another sponsored by Sen. Frederick T. Gray (D-Chesterfield) were defeated. "But I can assure you, after talking to members of the committee, that the governor's office has got to compromise or else the full Senate will never see" the Robb bill, Saslaw said.
He said that minutes before the Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee voted 9 to 5 to jettison his bill, he believed he had reached an agreement with the governor that a majority on the committee would support.
That compromise would raise the age for buying beer in grocery stores from 19 to 21, as Robb wished, and would increase the age for drinking beer in bars from 18 to 19. The age for purchase of hard liquor and wine in the state would remain at 21.
Saslaw said that the Senate committee members wanted assurances from Robb that he would not lobby for the House-passed bill on the Senate floor, a condition the governor would not accept. The issue has strong grass-roots support across the state during this legislative election year and numerous legislators have said they expect the General Assembly will vote some increase in the beer-drinking age.
Robb's press secretary, George Stoddart, declined to comment on the Senate committee action today and the governor's future strategy. "The governor recognizes this is a very sensitive and emotional issue," Stoddart said.
State Sen. Charles Waddell (D-Loudoun), one of several legislators Robb summoned to his office this week for private meetings on the drinking age, said he, too, urged the governor to consider a compromise. "He wouldn't agree," said Waddell, who voted against raising the drinking age to 21 and said he supports a compromise. "He Robb says 21 is right and proper and should have support."
That the Robb measure lacked strong Senate support was clear during today's three-hour committee hearing on the proposal, the third in as many weeks on the volatile issue. More than a dozen witnesses testified, including college students, bar owners from college towns, bereaved relatives of victims of drunken drivers and the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. All the witnesses agreed the drinking age should be raised to reduce alcohol-related deaths, but were sharply divided over what the new minimum age should be.
Safety Board Chairman Jim Burnett told the senators raising the drinking age to 21 is a "proven life-saving measure." He also offered a letter from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, saying that the Pentagon will examine the possibility of following state drinking-age laws on military bases.
Recently Weinberger had said that even if states like Virginia raise the drinking age, military personnel would still be permitted to drink beer at age 18 on bases.
Patti Herzog of Fairfax, whose 18-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk teen-aged driver last year, urged committee members to support Saslaw's bill.
"What if one person is saved? What if it's Lynda Robb? What if it's Mrs. Saslaw?" asked Herzog, a member of the Northern Virginia chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving MADD . "Is that worth it?"
As the senators filed out of the room they were greeted by angry parents. "It's time for you people to save lives," Herzog told state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), who voted against the Saslaw bill.
Wilder assured Herzog he would vote to raise the drinking age. "It could be 21 on premises, 20 off, or 19 across the board, which I personally favor," Wilder said. "Don't be under any illusion, we will pass a compromise bill," he said.
Edward Kunec, president of Northern Virginia MADD, said his group plans to lobby senators on behalf of the House bill. "I think the governor's position is reasonable," Kunec said. "But if compromise is the only way to get a bill through, then maybe he should compromise."