Boston — Efforts toward a national minimum drinking age are making headway in legislatures across America. Spurred by the potential loss of millions of dollars of federal highway funds, a dozen states have moved in the past eight months to ban liquor sales to anyone under 21. The latest measure, which cleared the Florida Legislature May 30, is to take effect July 1.
Similar action is under consideration in five other states plus the District of Columbia. And in Montana, the Legislature earlier this year cleared for placement on the November 1986 ballot a state constitutional amendment raising the drinking age from 19 to 21.
Under legislation, signed into law last July by President Reagan, the US Department of Transportation is empowered to withhold 5 percent of a state's federal highway funds in fiscal 1987 and 10 percent in fiscal '88 if the state has a minimum drinking age below 21.
The President's Commission on Drunk Driving in its December 1983 final report called for a uniform minimum drinking age across the US. Former Massachusetts Gov. John A. Volpe, who chaired the panel, says he is ``very pleased'' that so many states are responding to the call to raise the drinking age.
An estimated 700 to 1,000 a year fewer road fatalities could be expected if the minimum drinking age in all states was 21, according to the National Safety Council.
Current lack of uniform drinking laws is a major concern to officials in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Both states raised their drinking ages from 20 to 21 on June 1. But in nearby Vermont it stayed at 18. Legislation there failed in mid-May, when the state Senate and House, which both had approved measures to raise the drinking age, were unable to reach a compromise.
Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin, unlike predecessor Richard A. Snelling who had twice vetoed such legislation, pressed hard for raising the drinking age. Another try is promised in 1986, legislators say.
Governors in New England and the Northeast last January unanimously endorsed a uniform drinking age of 21. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island met that goal and the Massachusetts law, although not then in effect, was in place. Since then New Hampshire and Connecticut have followed suit.
Similar measures -- raising Maine's drinking age from 20 to 21 and New York's from 19 to 21 -- are still pending, despite strong gubernatorial support. They and Vermont are among 15 states that along with the District of Columbia have drinking ages below 21 for some or all types of liquor. At the time of the presidential commission report 19 months ago, 31 states fell below that mark.
Continued noncompliance with the 1984 uniform drinking-age law could cost various states up to $284.9 million in federal highway grants in fiscal 1987 and $558.9 million in '88. New York, for example, could lose $63.3 million over the two-year period. Had Florida failed to raise its drinking age to 21, $24.2 million in federal aid would have been jeopardized.
Critics of the ``shape up or else'' law, like South Dakota Attorney General Mark Meierhenry, contend that the measure violates the constitutional rights of states by intruding on their sovereignty. South Dakota allows 18-year-olds to buy beer containing 3.2 percent alcohol but restricts other liquors to 21-year-olds.
A South Dakota challenge of the nearly year-old law failed in US district court, and new litigation in the federal appeals court is being readied, state officials say. Several other states, including Ohio, which lets 19-year-olds buy beer but restricts other types of liquors to those 21 or older, are expected to side with South Dakota.
Other states with drinking ages below 21 are: Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New York, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming -- plus Washington, D.C.
Besides Florida, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, states raising the drinking age to 21 since the federal legislation passed last July are: Alabama, effective Sept. 30; Connecticut, Oct. 1; Georgia, from 19 to 20 Sept. 1 and to 21 a year later; Kansas, July 1; Mississippi, July 1, 1986; North Carolina, Sept. 1, 1986; South Carolina, Sept. 1, 1986; Texas, Aug. 31, 1985; and Virginia, July 1, 1986.