The young lesislator's eyes sank further and further into her drawn face as men and women who rely on Maryland's social programs passed before her, all pleading for fiscal mercy from her subcommittee.

On the first day, there was Annie Chambers of Baltimore, a large, angry welfare rights activist, telling of hunger and cold in the homes of Maryland's welfare recipients, whose benefits the subcommittee had considered cutting this year.

On the second day, Gloria Cherry was in the witness seat, telling of four young children who will have nowhere to go if the legislature reduces the day care stripened by even 25 cents. In between came foster parents, foster children, child welfare advocates and more, each with wrenching stories to tell.

Del. Nancy Kopp (D-Montgomery) the subcommittee chairman, watched the procession with a combination of concern and dread. For in the Maryland budget process, it is her panel's job to find something to cut from the half-billion dollar Human Resources Department budget proposed by Gov. Harry Hughes.

"I had expected it to be unpleasant, but never this unpleasant," she said, agreeing with some reluctance to tell how she approaches the worst fiscal squeeze in Maryland in a generation. And for Kopp, who once considered herself the "liberal conscience" on the panel, the cuts are made all the more difficult by the fact that they are minor, mandated by the state's troubles; not by the deep cuts in federal aid that Kopp and others are confident the Reagan administration soon will make.

Kopp twisted uncomfortably in her chair, and, before going on, laid down one ground rule: "Don't take advantage of me, because right now I feel awful."

Her dilemma is shared by almost every budget committee as those panels try to find fat in a budget that Hughes has precariously balanced. But Kopp says her task is compounded because each cut her subcommittee will make will have a direct impact on some individuals.

Her panel will complete its hearings today and probably vote next week on $10 million of cuts proposed by the subcommittee staff in addition to the reductions Hughes made.

"I find my position very painful," she began. "My problem is: All those day-care mothers, I agree with almost everything they said. How are you disagree? Who would want to pay $5.25 a day [the rate the state pays women who are certified to provide day care in their homes] to someone who cares for her child?

"But I agreed with all the foster parents too, and the welfare advocates. I agreed with all of them. At this moment, I feel if we even touched a social service, it would be terrible."

Several of Kopp's fellow subcommittee members expressed similar feelings, including western Maryland Del. DeCorsey Bolden, a Republican who harbors a rural man's distrust toward big government: "Some of the testimony we heard in the last few days is impossible to ignore, and that's coming from a conservative," he said.

But they are certain to cut -- both because of duty and because of time-honored Appropriations Committee tradition. In Maryland, the governor alone has the power to write the budget; the legislature is left with the lesser role of cutting what the governor allocates, then shipping him a reduced budget, hoping that he will spend the money they have saved on their pet projects.

This system has spawned a macho culture of cutting -- more so in the House of Delegates, than in the smaller, more restrained Senate -- which measures legislators by how much they can dig out of the governor's proposals. The deeper a subcommittee cuts, the more its members pump up their personal political stock.

Within this system, Kopp, a second-term delegate, is somewhat of an anomaly. In the horsetrading atmosphere of Annapolis, she shuts herself off at times with public policy journals and tomes, reading with the zeal of a graduate student. As one of her colleagues put it: "Nancy is interesting. She operates as an intellectual in a world that spins on guts."

Also, this is her first year chairing the Human Resources and Education subcommittee of the powerful House Appropriations panel. Before, she was a liberal member of the subcommittee, pushing the moral position even when it veered beyond strict fiscal responsibility. Now it is her job to rein in people like herself.

Still she wonders if that is possible. "I'm convinced you can show your strength by not cutting," she said, conceding that many legislators might disagree with her.

The scene in Kopp's subcommittee hearing room last week had all the elements of a melodrama featuring the poor and their advocates. DHR Secretary Kalman R. (Buzzy) Hettleman set the tone with his lead-off statements that further budget cuts are simply an attempt to build up a state surplus on the backs of the poor.

Then Hettleman took a seat in the back of the room, watching the proceedings like a director at his play, whispering advice to welfare lobbyists and bureaucrats scheduled to testify later in the day against $10 million of proposed cuts -- mainly in the welfare budget.

Each proposed cut, the witnesses testified, was either untenable for the poor who depend on the programs or it was unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, Kopp said, she was struggling to keep her eyes riveted on the witnesses to avoid thinking about what was happening beside her. There, a state budget analyst was leafing through a fresh copy of federal budget director David Stockman's "black book" -- 245 pages of proposed, far-reaching cuts in the federal budget that will have dramatic effects on state programs that, according to last week's testimony, are already winnowed to the bone.

It is partly for that reason that Appropriations Committee Chairman John Hargreaves (D-Caroline County) has called on all his subcommittees to cut as deeply as possible into Hughes' proposed 1982 budget, to build up a reserve for 1983, when the impact of the Stockman cuts will hit Maryland.

That means DHR will probably not escape some significant cuts, going beyond the obvious so-called "nickel and dime" trims -- such as the $9,800 alloted for two new state cars next year.

Even the department's traditional allies are looking with skepticism at its budget. Yesterday Del. Luiz Simmons, a liberal Montgomery County Republican, released a study saying that DHR overpaid welfare recipients by $65 million in the last four years and has failed to recoup most of it. That sum, Simmons said, represents enough money to raise the level of current benefits -- $326 a month for a family of four -- by about 5 percent.

Simmons argues that liberals can save programs like welfare only by insisting that they operate economically.

But even that doesn't seem to Kopp to be the answer. "I'm not convinced that we would get that much money back for all that we would have to spend to wipe out the error rate," he said. "Yes, we're concerned about that, but look at whom you'd be getting money back from. It's not as if the state has paid welfare money to anybody wealthy."