The Maryland Senate today voted overwhelmingly to raise the drinking age for beer and wine from 18 to 19, but the measure's prospects for survival in the House of Delegates are uncertain.
The influential chairman of the key House committee who, with his tie-breaking vote, killed the measure last year, said it is likely to face a "dead heat" finish again.
The bill sailed through the Senate during this first full week of the session on an emotional wave of reaction to an automobile accident in which an 18-year-old who had been drinking overturned his speeding truck and killed 10 friends.
Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes supports the bill, as does House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), but the key to its future, most legislators agree, rests with Del. Joseph W. Owens, a Montgomery County Democrat who holds sway over the House Judiciary Committee.
"I have several problems with the bill," Owens said after learning of its 34-to-10 passage by the Senate. "I just don't think it will do any good."
But Owens said the future vote in his committee is "really just too close to call. This bill seems to be the crusade of the century."
Indeed, many of its senatorial proponents spoke with fervor today of the bill's main thrust -- to get alcohol off high school campuses -- and of the accident in which 18-year-old Alan Cole lost control of his truck on a deserted road near Fort Meade, resulting in the worse traffic tragedy in Maryland history.
"We could argue perhaps that raising the drinking age to 19 would not have made a difference," the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. H. Eric Schafer (D-Anne Arundel), said during today's debate. "But then, we'll never know."
Sen. John Cade, his Republican colleague from Anne Arundel, said the bill's main aim was to get beer and wine out of the hands of high school seniors, who buy it for their younger friends. The legal age for drinking hard liquor in Maryland is 21.
The bill even drew the favorable vote of Sen. Peter A. Bozick (D-Prince George's), a beer distributor.
But Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery) argued that the bill was "absurd . . . discriminatory. It will do nothing. But worse, it creates a misimpression that we are doing something about alcoholism."
Other opponents argued that the real problem was enforcement of the current age limit. One noted that in Baltimore, where there are nearly 1,800 licensed liquor dealers, only one license was revoked last year for selling liquor to a minor.
The drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18 years of age in 1974, partly at the urging of Montgomery and Prince George's legislators; who said their counties were losing beer and wine sales to Washington, where the age limit already was 18, according to Schafer.
There have been several attempts to raise the age back to 19 in the last fews years, but all have failed in one General Assembly body or the other. Most often, the bill has passed the Senate and then lost in the House.
"They (the senators) do that every year" said Owens. "Then they can say they are on the side of the angels and hope that we take care of it over here."
Owens questions whether the bill really will affect the number of teen-age drunk-driving incidents or whether the taking of a privilege away from 18-year-olds is a proper way to keep beer and wine from younger teens.
The bill gets its first House hearing in Owens' Judiciary Committee. If it fails to gain approval there, it can still be sent to the full House. But bills that fail to achieve committee approval are rarely passed by the 141-member body.
Cardin said that he "certainly supports the bill personally" and plans to take it up with the rest of the House leadership because he believes it is of state-wide importance.
"But the big question is the Judiciary (committee) vote," Cardin said. "If it passes there, it will pass the House."