Opponents of a move to save money by ending Maryland's in-school driver education program warned today that it could result in significantly reduced job opportunities for teen-agers in families too poor to afford private driving lessons.
The program is the target of a group of state senators are seeking ways to cut the budget proposed in January by Gov. Marvin Mandel. They want to reduce next year's anticipated spending by enough to avoid a 1 per cent increase in the state sales tax That would raise $120 million.
Elimination of the $4.6 million in school driver education program is one of the major cuts they are hoping to effect. The program provides 30 hours of classroom training and six hours of behind-the-wheel training for students aged 15 years and older.
Maryland law provides that students who satisfactorily complete the program can obtain driver's licenses at age 16. Without completing a driver education course, Maryland residents are not eligible for driver's licenses until they are 18.
At a hearing today on a bill that would eliminate the driver education program, some senators and members of the public protested that an end to the program would reduce job opportunities for youths between 16 and 18 whose parents could not afford to send them to private driving schools.
"Many times students need a license to qualify for jobs," said Kitty Shoap, president of the Maryland Congress of PTA organisations.
"When kids go for a job, the first question people asked them is 'Do you have a driver's license,'" noted Sen. Clarence Blount (D-Baltimore). "If they don't have a driver's license, they might as well not waste the time to fill out an application."
There are only about 60 commercial driving schools in Maryland. In the Washington area such schools charge average of $91.50 for the six hours of behind-the-wheel training needed to get a driver's license at age 16, according to testimony at the hearing.
State Highway Administrator Ejner J. Johnson said the private schools cannot handle all the students in the state, and that poor students could not afford the schools in any case.
"For them, the effective age for a driver's license would be 18 rather than 16," Johnson said.
Today's hearing was a hastily called affair, held on less than one day's notice in response to a budget amendment offered Thursday on the Senate floor to delete from the budget the $4.6 million that funds the program.
The amendment, offered by Sen. John C. Coolahan (D-Baltimore County), appeared to have substantial support in the Senate. "What started out to be a well-intentioned program turned out to be a mess," declared Sen. John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel). "Let's cut some of these frills we don't need," said Sen Frederick Malkus (D-Dorchester).
The Senate leadership, opposed to the amendment, deflected it late Thursday by pointing out that deleting the money from the budget would do no good unless legislation is passed to eliminate the program. Today's hearing was on a bill that would accomplish that purpose.
Virtually all of the state officials and members of local boards of education who appeared at the hearing - alerted by telegrams mailed by th Senate leadership early this morning - vigorously opposed ending the driver education program.
Highway Administrator Johnson said Maryland could lose as much as $18 million in federal highway safety and construction funds if the state ends the program because driver education is recommended in the federal highway safety law.
While all provisions of the law do not have to be met in order to qualify for federal funds, Johnson said, the federal government "expects the state to make a goodfaith movement toward compliance."
"We're very concerned that you do not cut this program," said Prince George's County school board member Maureen Steinecke.
The bill was defeated 7 to 4 in the Budget and Taxation Committee, but will be brought to the Senate floor, probably on Saturday, for action by the full body.
In other action, the first of several measures dealing with abortion cleared a key vote in the House. The bill, sponsored by Del. Leo E. Green (D-Prince George's), would change existing law by requiring physicians to notify parents before performing an abortion on an unmarried girl under 18.
Green, the father of five daughters, argued that it is "outrageous" that physicians now are required to notify parents before removing tonsils from a minor, but because of a 1972 law do not have to tell parents of an abortion.
Del. Torrey Brown (D-Baltimore), a physician, opposed the bill, saying it would force young girls to go to non-medical abortionists if they feared reprisals from their parents.
Debate on the death penalty was in its third day in the House, with members of the Black Caucus prepared to offer as many as 150 amendments in their effort to stall a vote.