From the very start, it looked like a curious bill to members of the House Economic Matters Committee. Some worried, in the vernacular of the legislature, that it was a "snake" or a "bellringer" -- a measure that appears innocuous but in fact is of great benefit or harm to one special interest.

No one on the committee could define the bill's impact clearly, and when a charge arose that it was put in to help one politically influential businessman, no one could confirm or deny the accusation convincingly. "We just couldn't grasp that thing," said Del. Charles Smith of Frederick County."It was like a bowling ball that we kept truning around in our hands, searching for a place to hold on."

And yet when the time came for the committee to vote on the subject of this confusion, an act restricting the sale of beer in Maryland by nonresident dealers, it was approved by an overwhelming margin and sent to the House floor blessed with this influential committee's endorsement.

Thus begins the story of House Bill 92, which illustrates how the Economic Matters Committee of the Maryland general Assembly deals with special interest bills that can mean million of dollars to a handful of businesses but are so narrow in scope that very few legislators understnad them.

Every year, scores of bills regulating the state's alcoholic beverage industry flow through this committee, which includes among its 23 members five men who are or once were employed in the industry as tavern and liquor store owners. No such bill has had a more curious life than the one regulating nonresident beer distributors.

For two successive years, the bill has been introduced by delegates acting on behalf of Maryland beer wholesalers. One year it was killed overwhelmingly. The next year it was approved just as overwhelmingly. Inboth instances, the committee's action was marked by confusion.

Daniel Minnick sponsored the bill in 1978, but cannot remember when, why or how. "I don't even know what it was supposed to do," said the Democrat from Dundalk. "I can't remember the damn thing. I don't know who the hell asked me to put it in. Someone must have walked up to me and asked me to do it and I said, 'Okay, what the hell.'"

Minnick's ignorance about the bill was compounded by the Economic Matters Committee, which was chaired last year by Del. John Wolfgang, a southern Prince George s County Democrat.

"We killed it by a 17-1 vote, but it was a stupid error," Wolfgang conceded recently. "It was supposed to pass, but we got it confused with another liquor bill in there and wound up voting on the wrong one. You get so many liquor bill in that committee you sometimes get them confused. After we killed it, a gentleman from Prince George's, I think it was Mr. Buck, got upset and asked me what happened. I told him I was sorry and we'd put the bill in again the next session.

The bill was put in again. This time the committee approved it, 18-3.

The central figure in this legislative drama and the "Mr. Buck" Wolfgang referred to, is William Irwin Buck, a wealthy wholesale beer distributor from Upper Marlboro, who had House Bill 92 introduced this year through Del. Nathaniel Exum of Prince George's County.

Buck is a man who understad the value of political friendships. For one thing, he is a contributor to the Prince George's Democratic Party. For another, he hosts a party each year in honor of his thriving business, and invites county elected officials as well as top-ranking employes of the state comptroller's office, which regulates beer distributors.

This year a affair -- a dinner-dance at the Rod 'N Reel Restaurant at Chesapeake Beach last Saturday -- counted among its guests several people with special importance to Buck. From the House Economic Matters Committee, there were three members -- chairman Fred Rummage, Exum and Frank Santangelo. From the comptroller's office, there was Eugene O. Fisher, assistant director of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division.

For Buck, there was plenty to celebrate that night. His beer sales -- particularily Miller Lite -- were going well, and, just a few days earlier, the Economic Matters Committee had given a favorable report to a bill he had been promoting for more than a year.

To understand Buck's interest in the bill, it is first necessary to learn something about two complex and related subjects -- state regulation of wholesale beer distributors and Buck's smoldering dispute with a Washington wholesaler over the sale of Molson Canadian Ale in Maryland.

Several years ago, the state legislature passed a law that was designed to stop territorial wars among Maryland beer distributors by giving exclusive franchises to those wholesalers selected by breweries or Foreign Importers to sell their brands in designated areas of the state. The law protected such wholesalers by forbidding competitors to sell the same brand within the region designated by the breweries or importers.

But some breweries choose not to name a Maryland distributor. In those cases, state wholesalers who want a certain brand acquire it from out-of-state dealers -- chiefly in Washington -- who have access to the product and the right to resell it in Maryland once they obtain a nonresident dealer's permit.

The special privilege extended these nonresident dealers has long irritated large Maryland dealers, like Buck, who resent "foreign agents" coming into their state, often selling competitive products at lower prices. The nonresident dealers pay lower taxes and a smaller fee for the same right, they say, noting that a nonresident permit costs $50 a year, whereas a wholesaler beer license costs $750 a year.

The resentment harbored by Buck and other big Maryland distributors helps explain the popularity of House Bill 92. The bill would eliminate as nonresident dealers these out-of-state distributors who are not official manufacturers' representatives.

"All we're asking for is justice for the people who pay taxes in this state," Buck said in an interview.

Opponents of the bill say the measure would restrain trade. "This bill would tip the scale in favor of the few large wholesalers and brewers who do not need additional help in monopolizing the beer business in Maryland," said Howard Rosenberg, owners of a Washington fire that distributes beer in Maryland.

Not all wholesalers in Maryland are happy with the bill. In fact, several small distributors -- expecially those who do not have exclusive franchises to sell the top brands -- view the legislation as part of a plot by Buck and the large wholesalers to squeeze them out of the market by drying up their source of beer.

They are people like Joe Lambert, owner of a beer distributorship in Carroll County, who receives almost half of his product from non-resident dealers who are not official brewery agents. "It's big man's bill," said Lambert, who estimated his gross sales would fall off by $400,000 a year if he is not able to buy from out-of-state wholesalers.

It was Lambert who unwittingly may have inspired Exum's introduction of House Bill 92 by getting in the middle of a territorial beer war between Buck and Howard Rosenberg, the owner of Buddy's House of Wine in Washington.

For several years, Lambert, acting as a sub-distributor, bought Molson's Beer and Ale from Buck and sold it in Cecil County, a sparsely-populated northeastern county that sells 16.7 gallons of beer per person annually -- more than twice the national average -- because it borders on Pennsylvania and Delaware and is streaked with major highways.

When Buck decided to drop Lambert as his sub-distributor of Molson's, Lambert, unwilling to drop out of the lucrative market, searched for a nonresident distributor who could sell him the popular Canadian beer and found Rosenberg, who had also been selling Molson's in Montgomery County. Buck then went to court, arguing that he had an exclusive franchise to sell Molson's in Maryland.

Much more than principe was at stake. Molson products are among the fastest growing in Maryland, moving up to second place among foreign beers. Rosenberg sells 120,000 cases a year in Maryland -- bringing him a net profit of 50 cents a case.

The court case ended in a victory for Rosenberg. Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Jacob S. Levin ruled that the Molson importer had never intended to give Buck exclusive franchise rights in all of Maryland, even though the Upper Marlboro wholesaler was the only agent named as a Molson distributor in the comptroller's office.

But Buck did not give up the battle. After the defeat of the non-resident permit bill last year, he arranged for Exum to have the identical measure reintroduced in this ession. "Exum called me and asked if I wanted it put in again," said Buck, who added that he "presumes" the bill would "keep him [Rosenberg] out of Maryland."

Buck's presumption rests on an interpretation of the bill's "grandfather clause" that allows those brands now being sold in Maryland by out-of-state dealers to continue flowing into the state. There is one qualification, however, that Buck says could resolve the Rosenberg dispute.

That qualification says noon-resident dealers can continue to operate until the manufacturer or importer "preempts the sales territory" by appointing a Maryland distributor. Pointing out that he is the only districutor named by Molson's importer, Buck said, "I already have exclusive rights."

No one can say with certainty if Buck's presumption is correct. The importer refused comment. one official in the comptroller's office said, "he'll have to spend a bundil in the courts to find out the answer."

Exum said he was not aware of the Rosenberg-Buck battle when he introduced the Bill. Asked what impact the bill would have, he responded: "I don't know if there is any impact." He added: "It's in the best interests of the citizens. Maryland has a reputation as a dumping ground for bad beer."

When Exum's bill reached the Economic Matters Committee in January, Rosenberg got word of it and called Del. Ida Ruben (D-Montgomery), a member of the committee who represents the district in which Rosenberg lives. He told her that he thought the bill represented an attempt by Buck to get the legislature to do what the courts would not.

In early February, Ruben had to leave her legislative dities temporarily because of an illness in her family. She asked Chairman Rummage to delay the vote on House Bill 92 until she returned. Again, there was a misunderstanding.

"She came up to me on the House floor and told me the number of the bill she wanted held," said Rummage. "But I never go by bill numbers and I thought she was talking about a kosher meat bill that she was very interested in. So I held that one instead."

On Feb. 13, with Ruben still absent, the committee considered Exum's bill and approved it by an 18-3 vote. Few members of the committee said they felt comfortable about their votes.

"I could pull it out right now and read it again and still not know what it really does." said Frank Komenda, a Prince George's delegate. "I guess I went along with it as a courtesy to Nat [Exum]."

"I read it over and over and couldn't figure out what it does," said Isaiah (Ike) Dixon, a delegate from Baltimore. "It bothers me, but I can't put my finger on why because I don't understand it really."

"It seemed like there was something missing all the time with that damn bill," said Del. William Rush, a former tavern owner who for years controlled all liquor bills as chairman of the alcoholic beverage subcommittee until that panel was disbanded this year.

"The committee discussion of the bill was just plain weird," said Del. Charles Smith, one of three delegates who voted against it. "Exum couldn't explain it and didn't even try. Whenever it came up, everyone just sat around with blank looks on their faces."