IN CLEARING his desk of the last stack of bills from this year's General Assembly, Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes cast a prudent veto when he blocked an appealing but technically faulty measure aimed at curbing under-age drinking. The idea behind the proposal was intriguing: instead of raising the state's minimum drinking age from 18 to 19 -- the standard response, with all its pitfalls -- the legislature this year voted to link under-age drinking with suspension of driving privileges. But in the last-minute rush to push through such a bill, the lawmakers managed to make some questionable changes in the way the state's alcoholic beverage laws would be enforced.
One important objection has to do with provisions that would have bypassed Juvenile Services Administration authorities and sent all under-age drinking cases directly to judges. Juveniles would be issued citations that would require hearings by judges. A judge could suspend a driver's license for up to three months, even -- and here's a catch -- if the offense had nothing to do with driving. Those under 16 who did not yet have licenses could have been prevented from obtaining one upon reaching that age.
It shouldn't be all that difficult to rid the legislation of these legal flaws and draft a measure for early consideration when the legislature convenes next year. The connection between driving and under-age drinking is real and there is little question that getting and keeping a driver's license is one of the most cherished ambitions of younger teen-agers. Taking that license away is a sanction that would hurt and would surely have more effect than raising the minimum drinking age, which would send suburban Maryland's 18-year-olds into the city -- no doubt by car.