Maryland is poised to become ground zero for cultural issues next year, with a voter referendum set to determine tuition rates for illegal immigrants and another potentially on the way to decide whether same-sex couples can marry in the state.

With the announcement that Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley will sponsor a same-sex marriage bill next year, opponents are already gearing up for a voter challenge to what nearly became law this year.

"I believe it has a good chance of passing," acknowledged Del. Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, a vocal opponent of same-sex matrimony. "If if does pass, it'll definitely end up in a voter referendum. Conservatives and religious people against gay marriage are going to show up to vote en masse."

Such a push would mirror a successful campaign by opponents of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, who gathered more than 100,000 signatures against the controversial legislation -- more than double the total needed to land the issue on the ballot in 2012.

However, some say it would be unwise to view the tuition debate as a precursor to efforts to block gay marriage, assuming it is approved by the General Assembly next year.

"I think there's a general tectonic shift in public opinion on the marriage issue," said Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Silver Spring. "People who were on the fence before now support it. I don't think there will be as much public support for [a gay marriage] referendum. There are huge generational changes taking place."

A bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage was unable to overcome stiff opposition from lawmakers in Prince George's County and conservatives from Baltimore County who cited religious reasons for opposing the bill. The measure narrowly passed the state Senate but failed to muster enough support in the more liberal House of Delegates.

However, Raskin said supporters fell just a half-dozen votes short of passage and pointed to New York's recent approval of gay marriage as proof of its inevitable place in state law.

Both sides of the political aisle agree that the 2012 political environment in Maryland will largely be defined by cultural issues.

"You know it's going to be a real interesting year," said Sen. Karen Montgomery, D-Silver Spring. "We're going to have some long and lively debates -- that's for sure."