By Jim Thomma and Amy Lee
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Virginians would be able to buy liquor with almost 50 percent more alcohol than is currently available under a bill passed Wednesday by the House of Delegates.
The legislation would raise the limit on the alcohol content of neutral grain spirits – alcohol that is "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color" – sold at state-controlled liquor stores from 101 proof (50.5 percent alcohol) to 151 proof (75.5 percent alcohol).
The bill passed with a bipartisan vote of 83-14.
Advocates view the bill as a common-sense measure to align the state's alcohol policy with that of the rest of the country. Virginia and Vermont are the only states that prohibit the sale of 151-proof liquor such as Everclear.
College and health officials say the bill would endanger college campuses already dealing with underage alcohol abuse, binge drinking and sexual assault. Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia, has compared highly potent liquor to a "date rape" drug.
The outcry led Gov. Terry McAuliffe to veto a similar bill last year. The veto came after legislators rejected McAuliffe's request to delay enactment of the legislation until further study.
Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored both the 2016 legislation and HB 1842 this session. On the House floor Tuesday, he said provisions had been added to the measure after consultations with public safety, health and education officials over the summer.
The provisions include a five-year sunset clause: Lawmakers would have to revisit the issue before the legislation expires on July 1, 2022.
Knight said that important concessions were made to the Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council and other advocacy groups and that he foresaw a clearer path for passage of HB 1842.
"There is now peace in the valley," Knight said.
Knight reminded his colleagues that they supported his bill last year by a vote of 97-0. In contrast, HB 1843 faced some opposition when it was considered by the House General Laws Committee. Last week, the committee voted 19-3 to recommend approval of the bill.
Knight stressed that the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control would still be able to restrict which products are sold at certain ABC stores. That would allow the agency to keep higher-potency products away from college campuses.
Luxco Inc., the company that makes Everclear, has supported the legislation. The St. Louis-based distiller also has supported Knight: It gave him a $1,000 campaign donation last April, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group that compiles data on political contributions.
McAuliffe has yet to declare a position on this year's legislation. But in explaining his veto last spring, the governor said he shared the concern of university health officials "that a prime market for these products is young people who are attracted to their high proof and low cost."
"Therefore, I continue to believe the best course of action is to study this issue further," McAuliffe stated in his 2016 veto message, "with particular focus on the restrictions and strategies implemented by other states that can be codified to reduce potential abuse of such products by young adults and youth, before selling this product in Virginia."