By Len Lazarick

It was a bizarre finale to a rally that brought thousands of state workers and teachers to Annapolis to protest cuts in pensions, retirement benefits and pupil spending. The last speaker was none other than the man who had triggered the rally by proposing the cuts: Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Union rally fills Bladen Street near State House.

“I don’t like this budget either,” O’Malley said in a short speech. He was met by cheers, some grumbling, and the evening’s chant of “Keep the Promise.”

He proclaimed his strong support for collective bargaining rights for public workers.

“Our state is not like other states,” the governor said. “You will not find in Maryland the sort of Midwestern oppression that you find in Ohio and Wisconsin.”

The mixed messages at the rally were a sign of the co-dependency between the public officials who rely on teachers and unions for their base of support and the public employee unions that rely on the governor for their funding.

In January, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was wrapping up negotiations on a new contract that granted employees a bonus, eliminated the furloughs of the preceding three years and established the agency fee that even non-members must pay to the union. At the same time, the governor was crafting a budget that cut pension benefits unless employees contributed more and that would force retirees to pay more for retirement benefits.

“They took us by surprise,” said AFSCME deputy director Sue Esty at a news conference last week. What’s more, the extra money that employees would pay to retain current benefits is not going into the pension fund, which is $18 billion in the hole, but is being used to balance next year’s budget, putting off full funding of the pension system for 11 years.

After the rally that saw a parade of teachers, students, retirees and current workers decry the proposed cuts, David Helfman, the executive director of the Maryland State Education Association – the teachers union — issued a statement: “Tonight, the governor reacted to 15,000 Marylanders who urged him to keep the promise.  With the General Assembly session down to the final four weeks, it’s clear that new ideas and real leadership are needed to move Maryland forward. We are prepared to add the ideas and voices of Maryland’s educators and are counting on the governor to demonstrate the leadership we need.”

(The Department of General Services estimated that the rally attendance was about 7,000 based on 150 buses at the Navy stadium and other locations. UPDATE: MSEA counted 204 buses with about 50 people to a bus, so 10,200, and thousands more by car and on foot.  Click here to see a photo gallery.)

The unions are proposing “a balanced approach” to the deficit. To them, “balanced approach” means higher taxes on alcohol, corporations, snacks, and possibly millionaires.

Demonstrators protest union rally.

O’Malley’s budget is balanced with no new taxes, but he has left the clear message that he is open to tax increases. At a United Seniors rally last week, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown was asked if there were any taxes that had been proposed that the governor would be unwilling to sign. The answer is no.

The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to make it decisions on O’Malley’s budget this week. The state constitution only permits them to cut it, not add to it. If the committee cuts too deeply beyond what O’Malley has proposed, pressure could build for higher taxes.

Opponents of higher taxes were outshouted in the streets near the State House Monday night. While thousands clamored to “Keep the Promise,” about 50 to 75 protesters carrying inflated pig balloons mounted a counter-rally objecting to “union bosses” and tax increases.

Bernadette Zgorski of Churchville carried one of the less provocative signs: “It’s about shared sacrifice.”

State workers need to understand that revenues are not coming in, she said, though she finds many of them clueless to the fiscal realities.

“We don’t have the money anymore.”

“I am the face of the unemployed, of the senior citizens on fixed incomes,” Zgorski said. She and they cannot afford any tax hikes, she said.