AUGUSTA – If you don’t show up for high school, you couldn’t get your driver’s license.

That is the bottom line of a proposed law that wouldn’t allow high schoolers to get their learners’ permits or drivers’ license if they’d been habitually truant in the past year.

Rep. Elaine Makas, D-Lewiston, sponsored the bill at the request of the Lewiston Police Department and Lewiston public schools to help prod more kids to attend school and to help cut down on crime.

“The beauty of the bill is, instead of taking a license away, this does not allow them to get it in the first place. Driving is a privilege, not a right,” Makas said.

“Habitually truant” would be defined as a student who missed seven consecutive, unexcused days of school, or 10 unexcused days a year. As proposed, before a student could get a permit or license, he or she would have to show proof from their school department that they were not habitually truant in the last year.

The law would only apply to public school students under 17. Once a student is 17, he or she has the right to decide not to attend school, officials said.

Lewiston School Department truant officer Wallace Pratt Jr. acknowledged that the law would not prompt all habitually truant students to return to school. But he said it would be an incentive for some, because teenagers value their privilege to drive. “Driving comes right after breathing and eating,” Pratt said.

Out of the 213 habitually truant students at Lewiston High, out of a student population of about 1,400, Pratt estimated the new law would influence about 100.

Opponents to the bill, including Paul Vestal Jr., who chairs the Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, spoke against the bill at a recent public hearing, saying it isn’t needed. Vestal and others pointed out that parents already have the legal right to deny their teenager a permit or license.

Pratt agreed parents can deny their minors a license. “But the reality of that is you’ve got a 16-year-old who is a 6-foot-3, 220-pound football player who can make mom’s life miserable until she throws her hands up,” he said. “With this, we’d try to hit the kids sitting on the fence,” who with more incentive could be encouraged to become better students. “This is not for the 20 percent who are not coming to school, period.”

Lewiston Police Department Sgt. James Minkowsky said that if passed, the bill could cause a decrease in crime. Statistics the department has gathered in the last three years show that 36 percent of the juvenile arrests happen when school is in session, and the crimes aren’t happening at school, Minkowsky said.

But the bill faces a challenge. Last week the Transportation Committee voted 7-6 against it.

One detractor is former secretary of state and committee member Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who voted against the bill because he feels school truancy and driving privileges are two separate issues and shouldn’t be linked. Driving privileges should not be kept from a youngster for a non-driving reason, Diamond said.

The bill is expected to reach the House and Senate floors for votes later this month.

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