Maryland's phantom bureaucrat has been given a new lease on life.

For the past four years, this official has shown up in the state budget. His title is Assistant Secretary of State Planning; he is the No. 3 official in the department and he is supposed to coordinate state and local planning activity; and he is paid $31,900.

He also does not exist.

Since the Position was created four years ago, it has never been filled by State Planning Secretary Vladimir Wahbe.

It's all a matter of budgetary manipulation, of course - there are scores of positions listed in the Maryland budget that are not actually filled. The money allocated for them either isn't spent or is spent on other departmental needs.

No position so high on the bureaucratic totem pole had stayed empty so long, and that fact was getting under the skins of the legislative staffers assigned to analyze the state budget.

It also was getting under their skins that the nonexistent official had gotten a raise this year - and that he has a real-life secretary assigned to him. Del. Frank Pesci, (D-Prince George's), head of a House Appropriations Subcommittee, agreed with them and convinced the full committee to eliminate the unfilled position, and the official's secretary.

The full House voted to back up the committee.

It was a valiant but futile effort. The other half of the state legislature, the Senate, had gone along with the recommendation of its Budget and Taxation Committee and left the money to pay the phantom bureaucrat and his secretary in the budget.

When the six-member conference committee met to decide what to do about weighty budget disputes between the two chambers - disputes over things like abortion funding and $3.4 million worth of state spending on other items - they also had a chance to decide the phantom's future.

They decided to let him live. The money taken out by the House was put back in the budget.

Last week, both Houses of the legislature voted to approve the conference committee's recommendations, leaving one budget analyst shaking his head in disbelief.

"I thought we'd really done it this year," he said disconsolately. "Maybe next year."

Maybe - If Wahbe hasn't found a real life official to take the phantom's place.