7 ballot questions could shape Maryland’s future

With last week’s court decision to allow a referendum on Maryland’s congressional map and the General Assembly’s passage of a gambling expansion bill, Maryland voters will see seven statewide questions on the ballot this fall.

The questions include proposals to allow table games at Maryland casinos and the addition of a Prince George’s County casino, to legalize same-sex marriage, and to permit some college-age illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates.

Politicians and analysts say the list, which includes Maryland’s first three voter-petitioned statewide referendums in 20 years, could go a long way toward shaping the state’s future.

“I can’t remember the last time there were so many important issues,” said Todd Eberly, coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “If even two of them are [voted down], it will send a message to the folks in Annapolis that this right to referendum can be used effectively.”

In all of the elections dating back to 2004 combined, there have only been nine statewide ballot questions. Of those, the most notable were two 2008 referendums in which voters chose to legalize early voting and slots casinos.

Of this year’s seven questions, four are assembly-proposed constitutional amendments that were passed by legislators but must be approved by voters.

These are the gambling expansion bill, requirements that orphans’ court judges in Baltimore and Prince George’s counties to be licensed lawyers, and a proposal to remove elected officials from office immediately after conviction for felonies and certain misdemeanors.

The gambling bill is the only one of those four that has drawn much controversy. It joins three other hot-button issues that were petitioned to the ballot in efforts led by Republicans looking to counteract the state’s powerful Democratic majority.

Petition drives were long thought to be too difficult and impractical in the state until opponents collected more than 100,000 voter signatures last year against the state’s Dream Act, which would allow many illegal immigrants to attend Maryland colleges at state resident rates.

To send a law to the 2012 ballot, petitioners needed to collect 55,736 signatures — a total equal to 3 percent of voters in the 2010 gubernatorial election.

This year, many of the same organizers led successful petitions against a same-sex marriage law passed by the General Assembly in February, and against the new map for congressional districts which opponents argue was drawn to benefit Democrats and dilute the influence of black voters.

All three drives relied on the use of a website that allowed voters to print out and distribute their own copies of a petition. Delegate Neil C. Parrott, Washington Republican, was instrumental in developing the strategy and said it could help outnumbered Republicans for years to come.

“What we’re seeing now is that the legislature and the governor have completely overreached, ignored the will of the public and shoved through bills that they want to see passed,” Mr. Parrott said. “But now the will of the people is going to come forward.”

Of the seven ballot questions, same-sex marriage likely will receive the most national attention as supporters hope to make Maryland the first state ever to approve gay marriage by public vote. Thirty-one states have rejected it.

The congressional map referendum could force the state to redraw its eight congressional districts in time for the 2014 elections, while approval of the Dream Act would make Maryland join 12 states that have passed some form of tuition benefits for students brought into the country illegally as children.

Gambling expansion could also bring more than $700 million a year in added revenue to casino operators, education and local governments, but critics worry it might oversaturate the state’s gambling market.

Delegate Jolene Ivey, Prince George’s Democrat, said she expects the laws approved by the General Assembly to be ratified at the ballot box and rejected the claim that lawmakers have defied voters by passing such legislation.

“The fact that it passed in the first place means there is significant support in Maryland,” she said. “We are representing our constituents so if we voted for it, you can expect that a lot of voters will as well.”

The Maryland Secretary of State is scheduled to certify all ballot language Monday.

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