Maryland's House of Delegates, which has been accused this year of ignoring new tax relief programs, tonight unanimously passed a bill that would exempt piles of manure from the state property tax.

The measure, which has been the subject of protracted, often comic, debate in committee and on the House floor, was helped along by a fictitious lobbying group that distributed small bags of manure to each of the 141 delegates' desks before tonight's vote.

Stamped on each of the bags was the message: "Vote for House Bill 492 -- The Talbot County Manure Association."

Del. William S. Horne (D-Talbot), the Eastern Shore delegate who sponsored the measure, insisted his bill was serious. "It corrects an inequity in my district," he said.

Nevertheless, Horne, who denied responsibility for the lobbying group, had difficulty persuating his guffawing colleagues to consider his constituents' problem in a sophisticated manner.

When the bill was called tonight, Horne was immediately confronted by Del. Fred Rummage (D-Prince George's), who demanded to know whether the substance that had been left on his desk was "some kind of blend of fine tobacco."

"That's a matter of personal taste," Horne replied.

Horne later explained that his bill was dessigned to aid farmers in his area who required by federal and state officials to build retaining walls to prevent runoff of manure they store for fertilizer into nearby streams and lakes.

The cost of building "manure banks" to comply with the government regulation ranges from $30,000 to $50,000, Horne said. "The thought is that the farmer should not be penalized excessively by having to build things," Horne said. "My bill would save them about $100 on each one."

For the last several weeks, Horne said, he has attempted to explain the bill to his fellow delegates in a reasonable way. His own lobbying efforts have been stymied, however, by the "Talbot County Manure Association," a mythical group apparently organized by some of Hore's colleaguues, which claims responsibility both for the samples of manure delivered in the House and for previous lobbying efforts.

"I guess some of my fellow delegates decided they had to stick a hand in this," Horne said sheepishly. "Or maybe a foot."

Horne blamed two Prince George's delegates, Timothy Maloney (D) and Gerard F. Devlin (D) for creating the spurious Manure Association, which focused attention of this bill.

Both delegates have made prankish speeches on the bill, and Devlin has made a point of asking whether William Weaver, the powerful lobbyist for the state's banking industry, supports the manure bank exemption.

Both Maloney and Devlin evaded questions on the origin of the bags of manure last night.

"I'm not allowed to discuss this bill because I have a conflict of interest," Maloney explained. "I took an all-expense-paid trip to Talbot County manure bankers -- and sampled some of the best manure the state has to offer."

"I just hope the legislators will report any gifts they received tonight to the secretary of state's office as required by the ethics law," Maloney added.