Conservatives in Maryland rarely have something to cheer about. But things may slowly be changing, as efforts to recognize same-sex marriage and instill a ban on septic systems in large developments both died this spring once legislators realized they didn’t have the votes and the effort wouldn’t be worth the outcry from newly energized conservative stalwarts. The septic system ban was a particularly bitter pill for Governor Martin O’Malley to swallow as he made it the key new legislative initiative of his 2011 State of the State address.
Yet one controversial bill made it through by slim margins in both houses, with bipartisan opposition. Sponsored by a group of Maryland’s most liberal legislators, Senate Bill 167 allows illegal immigrants who graduated from the state’s schools to enjoy in-state tuition rates at the state’s community colleges. It is estimated the bill could cost state taxpayers upward of $3 million per year by 2016, although those who drew up the bill’s fiscal note conceded they couldn’t accurately gauge the impact.
While it’s not often tried and rarely succeeds, Maryland’s state constitution allows voters to petition bills to referendum at the next general election. Originally it was expected the same-sex marriage bill would be brought before Free State voters; instead that bill’s failure allowed conservative advocates to concentrate on battling the in-state tuition bill. Maryland is already thought of as a magnet state for illegal immigrants, and opponents of the measure were concerned that even more “undocumented workers” may find their way to the state, further burdening an already strained state budget.
Still, those who wished to bring to bill to referendum faced a tough challenge. Maryland’s referendum law has two hurdles: a number of valid signatures of registered voters equal to 3% of the vote total of the last gubernatorial race needs to be collected by June 30, with at least 1/3 of those submitted by May 31. For this electoral cycle, the number of signatures required is just over 55,000.
Despite the fact the Maryland General Assembly passes egregiously bad laws each year, the petition for referendum is rarely attempted. In 2009, after a bill allowing speed cameras in work and school zones was passed, organizers of a petition drive to send that bill to voters in 2010 fell just short at the 1/3 threshold. The last time a petition succeeded in making the ballot was 1991, while one has to go back nearly forty years to find the last time a ballot initiative succeeded in overturning legislation. So petition organizers knew history was against them.
But the modest crop of Maryland Republicans being elected these days owes a great deal to the Tea Party movement, and a freshman legislator who got his start with the Hagerstown Tea Party has taken the reins of the petition drive. And while Delegate Neil Parrott is the point man, he’s got an important ally in the fight as the Maryland Republican Party is actively engaged as well. State party Chair Alex Mooney also hinted the party may use this tactic more in the future, with tax increases on the horizon in this fall’s special session of the General Assembly. Speaking at the state party’s recent convention, he noted “we need to use that petition to referendum more often.”
So you can imagine the shock that Annapolis liberals received when Parrott and his local petition organizers announced last week they were turning in 62,496 signatures at the May 31 milepost. While supporters of the Senate bill like the immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland are publicly holding their cards close to their chest, it’s likely they will turn to the courts if the petition drive succeeds in getting the signatures required. In the meantime, they’re attempting to impede progress any way they can.
So what happens if the petition drive succeeds and any court challenges are beaten back?
By most accounts, Maryland is not a state which will be in play for the 2012 presidential race — Barack Obama won the state by 25 points in 2008, and even before that the Free State has been a reliable double-digit win for Democrats since President Clinton won office in 1992. Similarly, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin is considered a shoo-in for re-election in the other statewide race.
But a downballot issue such as this could galvanize Republican turnout and perhaps swing a congressional race or two, depending on the strength of candidates put up by the state party.
A successful petition drive could also have a longer-lasting ancillary effect. With the lines being drawn in this fall’s special session, the Democrats who control the redistricting process have as their number one target freshman Republican Congressman Andy Harris of the First District. Since Harris resides in the Baltimore suburbs, the Democrats who draw the congressional lines will look long and hard at adding more urban voters to his district, possibly splitting off a portion of the rural, Republican-leaning Eastern Shore in return. On the other side of Maryland, longtime Sixth District Congressman Roscoe Bartlett could see his district shifted southward into Montgomery County, a Democratic stronghold.
With Democrats firmly controlling the other six congressional districts, an example of changing a D+15 district to one that’s perhaps D+10 wouldn’t normally come into play — unless an issue such as in-state tuition for illegals brought heavy GOP turnout and the possibility of a couple upsets. It’s worth mentioning that Parrott estimated about 25% of the petition signatures were coming from Democrats and about 15% from unaffiliated voters. Thus, Democrats who are already worried about a conservative tide in the 2012 election because of a ballot issue may instead choose to keep the status quo of packing Republicans into two of Maryland’s eight congressional districts, sacrificing their chances at a eight-seat sweep to avoid the prospect of losing a seat or two from the delegation.
For once, the Maryland Republican Party isn’t being timid. Admittedly, they weren’t out front leading the parade on the in-state tuition issue but they have embraced the effort and staked out a conservative position in a state where that’s not supposed to sell. There may be over 100,000 signatures by the end of June to debunk that conventional wisdom, and not a moment too soon.