Maryland's governor won't be on the ballot, and the state is highly unlikely to play much of a role in the presidential election. But 2012 is nonetheless shaping up to be a riveting year in Maryland politics. Here are four major stories to watch in the year to come.
A bill to legalize gay marriage cleared the Maryland Senate relatively quickly in 2011, only to stall in the House of Delegates. Advocates will have some formidable advantages this time around. Building on the experience of lawmakers in New York, which legalized gay marriage a few months after the legislation failed here, advocates have developed a smart, coordinated campaign to win over a few more supporters. But their biggest coup was getting Gov. Martin O'Malley to agree to sponsor the legislation and make it a priority for this General Assembly session.
The key voting bloc is likely to be in the black caucus. Large, predominantly African-American churches, particularly in Prince George's County, helped scuttle the bill last year, and advocates are clearly targeting their pitch to black voters.
A big reason why it's now or never for this General Assembly to pass gay marriage is the prospect that the legislation will be petitioned to referendum. Legislators aren't likely keen on the idea of such a hot-button issue appearing on the ballot at the same time their names do. And any lingering doubt about whether opponents could navigate the Byzantine rules of petition gathering was eased last year by the highly effective campaign to bring the Maryland Dream Act to referendum.
That law allows illegal immigrants who went to high school in Maryland and whose parents have paid taxes here to get in-state tuition rates in state colleges and universities — provided they go to community college first, get on a path to legal status and meet other criteria. With a highly organized grass-roots campaign and plenty of Internet savvy, opponents collected 108,000 signatures, more than double the number required to get the issue on the ballot.
It's still not certain that voters will get a chance to weigh in on the Dream Act. The immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland is suing to invalidate the Board of Elections' certification of the petition, arguing, among other things, that an Internet application that helped eliminate the errors that doomed previous referendum efforts violated state law. Hearings are scheduled to begin later this month.
The latest public state-wide polling shows the public is more or less evenly divided on both gay marriage and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. The Annapolis firm Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies reported in October that 48 percent of Maryland voters supported gay marriage and 49 percent opposed it — a statistical tie. The survey found 47 percent supported the Dream Act and 51 percent opposed it, which is just outside the poll's margin of error. In both cases, few are undecided, and the vast majority of voters feel strongly about their opinions, the survey showed. The firm plans to release new survey results on both issues when the General Assembly reconvenes this month.
Governor O'Malley is once again in a position of being forced to resolve a huge gap between projected revenues and spending, though at about $1 billion it is smaller than last year's structural deficit. The legislature's Spending Affordability Committee has recommended that the state take enough actions this year to cut the structural deficit in half — that is, the governor and General Assembly could employ $500 million worth of one-time tactics but would need to find $500 million in ongoing revenues, cuts, or a combination of the two. Governor O'Malley has always followed the committee's recommendations, and he likely will this year, too.
But the chances are increasingly good that his budget proposal, due later this month, will come with some form of tax or fee increases. A blue ribbon panel studying the state's transportation needs concluded that Maryland needs more than $800 million a year in new revenue, and another panel concluded that the so-called "flush tax" for Chesapeake Bay cleanup will need to be tripled to $90 by 2015.
The governor has not said definitively whether he will make either of those recommendations part of his agenda, though he has indicated some openness to them.
When Democrats in Annapolis redrew Maryland's congressional district maps, they hoped to make the 6th District, centered on Western Maryland, more competitive. At that, they succeeded. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, the longtime Republican incumbent, suddenly finds himself in a district that includes a major portion of Democrat-rich Montgomery County. Although the new lines were evidently drawn with Democratic state Sen. Rob Garagiola in mind, the race has attracted significant competition in both parties.