"It is so hard to predict how people in the end are going to vote," said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. "Undoing an institution that has been the foundation of our society is something people will think long and hard about doing."
The Assembly probably would not have the last word on the issue: A bill that passes this year or the next would be tossed to the electorate as a ballot initiative in 2012. President Barack Obama will likely be on the ballot then, along with Maryland's congressional delegation, but state lawmakers do not have to worry about re-election until 2014.
Vulnerable members in the Democratic-heavy body would prefer not to share a ballot with an issue that, in other states, has driven up conservative turnout. Or, as Busch put it: "The legislature will be less enthusiastic about putting something on the ballot if they are up for re-election."
With a decade's worth of congressional efforts to overhaul immigration having ground to a halt, state legislatures across the country are attempting to take matters into their own hands.
In Maryland, Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, has promised 16 bills that would crack down on illegal immigrants. At the other end of the debate, Sen.-elect Victor Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat, is drafting legislation that would help immigrants receive in-state tuition. Miller said the proposal might be limited to community colleges.
One of McDonough's measures would explicitly prohibit colleges from giving in-state tuition to immigrants. Another measure would require proof of citizenship to vote. All of the proposals, McDonough said, have been approved in other states.
"What's important to me is the rule of law, the citizenship we have and its value," McDonough said. "This is a sanctuary state, and it's getting worse."
In previous sessions, lobbyist Vincent DeMarco has led a group of disabled people around the state capital pushing for a dime-a-drink tax on alcoholic beverages that would benefit their health care. The General Assembly last increased the tax on wine in 1972; the levy on distilled spirits hasn't risen since 1955.
The tax portion of the concept is gaining momentum, but it is unclear that the disabled would benefit.
Miller said DeMarco "needs to be realistic" about where revenue from a higher levy on alcohol taxes would go. "If we raise it, it'll be because it's the right thing to do," Miller said.
In the House, Hixson said she's interested in raising the tax, but when asked whether the revenue would be dedicated to the disabled, she said: "We will not be doing that."
An increase in the tax on alcohol could add $207 million to the general fund, according to a legislative analysis.
The state's alcohol lobby contends that the sour economy is already hurting bars and liquor stores. They view the idea as a tax on the sort of struggling small businesses that O'Malley has pledged to protect.
Lovers of hard-to-find wines are already toasting the 2011 session, because House and Senate leaders say they are likely to pass legislation allowing wine to be sold by mail in Maryland.
But there is a dispute brewing over who would be allowed to ship wine into the state. Many agree that vineyards should be permitted to mail cases of wine, but the alcohol lobby wants to draw the line there and prohibit liquor stores from mailing. Such an arrangement would keep many wine-of-the-month clubs beyond the reach of Marylanders.
"I think there will probably be a bill," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the issue. "Will it be the bill [advocates] want? We do want to accommodate the constituents. … We don't want to put the retailers in Maryland out of business."
Conway was far less enthusiastic about changing the state's corkage rules to allow Marylanders to take their own wine to more restaurants.
"That is crazy," she said. "It doesn't make sense to me."
Drunken or distracted driving
Heading the list of transportation-related issues expected to come before the legislature is a proposal to require those convicted of drunken driving to install devices to prevent them from starting their vehicles if they have consumed alcohol.
MADD Maryland and other advocates vow to renew a struggle that went down to the final hours of the 2010 legislative session before a bill that would have made the so-called ignition interlock devices mandatory for even first-time offenders died in the House Judiciary Committee.
While the issue is returning, so is the lawmaker most responsible for the legislation's demise last year. Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. pushed for a compromise that would have required interlock devices for first-time offenders only if they were found to have a blood-alcohol level higher than the legal limit of .08 percent, but could not persuade MADD to go along.