As a concept, it is as appealing to most voters as motherhood. To most state legislators, on the other hand, it's as appealing as having dinner with a piranha.

The concept at issue is the initiative process, a governmental procedure that allows citizens to bypass their legislators, if they choose, to put proposed legislation onto the general election ballot to be approved or disapproved as their fellow voters see fit.

"This is a concept that simply brings government back to the people," explained Thomas P. O'Reilly (D-Prince George's), as he urged the constitutional and public law committee of Maryland's state Senate yesterday to approve and send to the Senate floor his bill to introduce the initiative process in Maryland.

"What the bill really does is to have people meddling with government - the government that we legislators have sort of taken to ourselves." O'Reilly added, "If we could really have all the people involved, the government would be better."

That was not the view of George Della, the former State Senate president who now works as a lobbyist for the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. "You're doing away with the checks and balances of the legislature if the bill is passed," he said. "What these people want to do is go over the legislators' heads."

The arguments on both sides were familiar to John Forster, a representative of the recently formed group called "Initiative America," which is trying to spread the initiative idea beyond the 23 states that now use it to other states and the federal government. For them, Annapolis is one more stop along the way.

"What we're trying to do is to make this a national Phenomenon," said Forster. For the most part, he added, the states that have accepted the concept are clustered west of the Mississippi River. East of the Mississippi, Ohio, Florida, Massachusetts and Maine have adopted the initiative process.

"This will give citizens the chance to share with you the chance to propose laws," Forster said to the committee.

The response from committee members was not uniformly warm. It has been seven years since the first pro-initiative bill was proposed in Maryland's General Assembly, and none of the earlier measures ever came close to passage.

Committee Chairman Edward T. Conroy (D-Prince George's) said after yesterday's hearing that the measure has "a fair chance this year, I sense much more support for it this year than in the past."

The O'Reilly bill which duplicates a measure introduced in the House of Delegates by Del. Judith Toth (D-Montgomery), would allow proposed legislation and local ordinances to be put on the ballot if the idea's backers obtained the signatures of three percent of the eligible voters in the last gubernatorial election.

It differs from Maryland's current referendum system in that it allows the voters themselves to initiate their own proposals. Under the referendum plan now in effect, citizens may ask to have a recently passed law placed on the ballot to allow the voters to decide whether to keep it, giving them in effect a veto over legislation.

"I think this is just a bad bill, Della said yesterday, finishing his testimony in opposition to initiative with a flourish. "If we can't have confidence in our General Assembly, I don't know who we can have confidence in."