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Job creation and economic development are expected to dominate the upcoming General Assembly session, but lawmakers, whether they want to or not, also are expected to take up social and environmental issues that were tabled last year.

Each chamber will see debates over same-sex marriage, Chesapeake Bay cleanup and energy issues, said University of Maryland, Baltimore County political science professor Laura Hussey.

Still, a focus on business regulation and new taxes — like a proposed increase to the state’s 23.5 cent-per-gallon gas tax — likely will fill lawmakers’ appetite for heavy lifting, she said.

“After some really tough votes they’re going to have to take this year on tax increases, (they) are probably not eager to pick up another hot-button issue and alienate some of their constituency,” Hussey said.

Both House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis and House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Dist. 29C) of Lusby agree that Maryland’s economy and the state budget, which faces a deficit of more than $1 billion, will take the majority of the General Assembly’s attention.

“I think you’re going to have a very, very challenging session and a tough economic climate on the heels of what’s taken place in Washington,” Busch said. “One thing our legislature can’t do is get bogged down in a situation like what Washington is and do nothing.”

Passing a gas tax won’t be easy and will rely largely on the price of gasoline at the time legislators take up the measure, Busch said.

O’Donnell, however, is critical of the tax and job creation plans expected to come from Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

He also is displeased with a review of state policies the O’Malley administration is conducting.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to review the regulations,” O’Donnell said. “It takes some leadership to say, ‘Let’s get off their back and get some jobs created.’”

O’Donnell’s fellow Republicans also will oppose a move to legalize gay marriage in Maryland, legislation that failed earlier this year when proponents couldn’t muster enough support in the House of Delegates.

That issue, which exhausted lawmakers and dominated discussions in Annapolis for a third of the 90-day session, might not be as high profile this year, Hussey said.

“(They will) want to do it sooner in the session rather than later so they can get to work on the real controversial issues,” Hussey said of same-sex marriage. “I think the tax questions will go down to the wire.”

If proponents can’t find the votes, she said leaders will be quick to take the same-sex marriage bill off the table, unlike earlier this year when the legislation died on the floor as lawmakers realized they didn’t have enough votes.

Other social issues, like repealing the death penalty, a bill Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D- Dist. 41) of Baltimore plans to introduce, will get little attention, Hussey said.

“I think they’re going to squeeze in time for same-sex marriage,” she said. “But they won’t be eager to handle much more.”

The bill also may get swift attention because O’Malley has pledged to sponsor the measure, advocates and observers have said.

Gladden, who has introduced the death-penalty repeal in recent years and even said the bill was overshadowed by focus on same-sex marriage in 2011, is holding out hope for the legislation.

Buoyed by recent national attention, she hopes the bill will have a better fate this year.

“Maybe we can just slide it out without some attention,” Gladden said. “I’m not offended if it just nobly or quietly passes the Senate and the House. Given there are so many fights on the horizon, maybe a busy year would be good.”

Environmental issues, including a move to create a wind energy farm off the state’s coast, limitations on residential septic systems and Bay cleanup also are expected to gain attention from lawmakers.

“The environment gets attention because the governor is behind it,” Hussey said. “I’m not sure the legislature is as eager to deal with some of those environmental issues.”

Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park is anxious to take up environmental issues, including expanded regulations on drilling for natural gas in Western Maryland.

A committee created earlier this year to study the impact of hydraulic fracturing — the process by which gas could extracted from bedrock in Western Maryland — is expected to return recommendations to the governor and legislature before the new year.

Mizeur, who sits on that committee, expects the recommendations to include a severance tax on gas companies, a per-acre fee charged to companies to pay for studies on fracking, as the process is known, as well as consumer protection laws for residents who lease their land to gas companies for drilling.

Despite the heavy lifting expected on economic matters and the priorities placed by O’Malley on issues like same-sex marriage and the environment, surprise issues are likely to surface, O’Donnell said.

“There’s always something that comes out of the blue, left field, that’s not anticipated,” he said. “I can tell you it will be a very politically charged year; the backdrop will be a presidential election.”

sbreitenbach@gazette.net