Gov. Harry Hughes' decision to back away from a proposal by the state secretary of personnel that would establish racial and sexual quotas to fill state hiring lists has created a controversy in the legislature with several black legislators questioning the governor's commitment to affirmative action.

Hughes asked Personnel Secretary Theodore Thornton last week to delay implementation of the proposed hiring plan -- which essentially would require that four of every five persons considered for a job be women or minorities -- after several legislators on a key House committee attacked the proposal as "reverse discrimination" and threatened to take action to prevent such hiring policies from going into effect.

The state NAACP immediately threatened to file suit over the issue and this week, members of the legislative black caucus accused Hughes of being "insensitive" to minorities.

While Hughes has said he has not abandoned the proposal but simply asked for alternatives to it before any changes are made, legislators on both side of the issue said an easy solution is unlikely.

"It's a ridiculous idea," said Del. Paul Muldowney (D-Hagerstown), a vigorous opponent of the proposed changes, who has threatened to submit a bill to prevent them from being put into effect. "Just about anyone who's Caucasian," he said, is upset by the proposal.

Black legislators insist that Hughes go ahead with Thornton's plan. "We want the proposal to go forth," said Del. Frank Conaway (D-Baltimore), chairman of the black caucus. "Thornton was trying to achieve some degree of equity in hiring and we are totally in concert with that. The governor is being insensitive."

Said another black delegate, Larry Young (D-Baltimore), "If opposition comes from our colleagues or from the governor then we'll have to have a showdown."

At issue is the state's procedure for filling some 54,000 jobs. About 52 percent of those positions are now occupied by women and 29 percent by blacks but in the high-paying jobs, women and minorities are "underrepresented," according to state personnel officials.

Thornton's proposal attempts to change these statistics by altering the way his department evaluates prospective employes for job openings and places them on a list of eligible candidates.

According to state law, Thornton's department must submit five candidates for every opening. In the past, the five candidates were those persons who scored highest on the personnel department's test for the job.

However, in the last few years the tests have come under fire in the courts and by the federal government as possibly discriminatory. The state was thus forced to either check all its tests -- a lenghty process -- or alter the way they are evaluated to make sure that they did not discriminate against women or minorities.

Thornton decided to change the evaluation process. First he devised a sort of scoring policy that lumped together as most qualified all those who scored above a certain point on the test. No distinction was made between the test scores of those in that group.

Then through a quota system called "random stratified selection," he proposed that the department make sure the list of five candidates forwarded for a final selection include one black man, one black woman, one white man, one white woman and one person chosen randomly or from any other minority group -- provided members of those groups were included in the most qualified list.

It was this proposal that upset several legislators, including members of the House Appropriations Committee that oversees personnel policies. "What disturbed everyone was when he started talking about one black man, one black women, one white man, one white woman," said Committee Chairman Del. John Hargreaves (D-Caroline).