ANNAPOLIS -- Thousands of Maryland teachers, union workers and public employees marched on the State House last night, many of them begging to have their taxes raised.
Others said they joined the huge protest just to convince the state to stop cutting the programs on which they depend.
Hard-hat union workers, for example, chanted, "Keep prevailing wage," referring to a state law that helps them earn higher salaries on government projects.
"It's the biggest [demonstration] I've seen in 20 years," said Annapolis police Capt. Cassin B. Gittings.
Rally organizers got the 20,000 marchers they'd hoped for, according to state police. The placard-carrying, chanting crowd stretched from the State House steps down Bladen Street and past the House and Senate office buildings.
The rally was the first of the newly convened 1992 General Assembly session. It was designed to put the lawmakers who returned yesterday on notice that at least some Marylanders would rather have their taxes raised than see more government programs cut.
"Our kids cannot tolerate these cuts. America's schools cannot tolerate it. Our society cannot tolerate it," said Casey L. Coleman, a special education teacher at Cedar Lane Elementary School in Columbia. "We refuse to take it lying down."
Ms. Coleman and David A. Patterson, a teacher at Harper's Choice Middle School in Columbia, said they often hear Gov. William Donald Schaefer say that Marylanders don't want to pay more taxes. But they said last night's rally might convince him otherwise.
During the 90-day session, lawmakers must decide how to eliminate a projected $1.2 billion deficit to meet the constitutional requirement for a balanced budget. Their only choices are deeper cuts in state spending, higher taxes or a combination of the two.
With such an unappetizing menu, the usually festive opening day took on a grim air.
"It's like gallows humor," Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, said, describing the general tone of conversation as the state's 404th legislative session officially opened for business.
"This will probably be the best day you'll have in the next 90 days. It's not going to be an easy session for any of us," Del. R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, told his Democratic colleagues in a caucus shortly before they gave him another term as House speaker.
Some legislators said they were awaiting guidance from Governor Schaefer, who was to deliver his annual State of the State address to a joint session at noon today.
The governor's aides wouldn't say what Mr. Schaefer will propose, but speculation was that he would propose his own solution to the deficit, including a comprehensive tax increase.
But they warned that the unpredictable Mr. Schaefer could pepper his speech with surprise proposals as he did a year ago.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, who was also re-elected to his post, tried to cheer up his colleagues by telling them that the economy of 1992 is much better than the state's economy during the Great Depression.
He said today's 6.8 percent unemployment rate is nothing compared to the "20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent" unemployment during the 1930s.
As for spending cuts, Mr. Miller said the General Assembly was forced to cut the budget by 30 percent during the height of the Depression.
Still, leaders of organizations such as the Maryland State Teachers Association said Maryland's current budget has already been cut enough.
And MSTA President Jane Stern said the organization's call for taxes was not a selfish, veiled attempt to assure its own members pay raises.
"People have a rather distorted view," said Ms. Stern, one of the organizers of last night's rally. "This is a rally for stopping the cuts. [Teachers'] salaries don't come into this. They're just ravaging education again and again."
Michael Kennedy, a retired social studies teacher from Catonsville, and his wife, Phyllis, and daughter, Jennifer -- also teachers -- joined the march in an effort to keep a proposed $184.4 million increase in state aid for education from being cut.
"We're trying to let the people of Maryland -- and specifically the General Assembly -- know how tough a time we have teaching young people. It's a very difficult job these days," he said.
"I don't know what the answer is, but it's going to take an awful lot of money."