Gov. Harry Hughes sat at a long, shiny conference table last week, the state treasurer and the budget director on either side of him, and fielded questions on the $6.4 billion budget he would shortly submit to the General Assembly.

The budget was filled with controversial items, from tax increases on property, cigarettes and liquor, to a new lottery and a list of $51 million in popular programs that Hughes said would be jeopardized if the legislature didn't see things his way and approve the tax package he proposed.

How did he expect to get this package through an often-rambunctious legislature, the governor was asked? Even before the budget was released, delegates and senators already were grumbling about the taxes, the list of "hostage" programs and Hughes' proposal to transfer into general funds about $29 million in transportation funds that had been slated for highway and bridge repairs.

With only a slight pause, Hughes, inaugurated into a second and final term the day before, replied confidently, "We'll work it out. We'll work it out."

This casually uttered phrase-- and the idea of working out any problems that cropped up--was a favorite of former governor Marvin Mandel, one that he used to smooth over any problem or to finagle any program through a General Assembly that he for the most part controlled.

It was therefore somewhat startling to hear the same words spoken by Hughes, who made a point of acting unlike Mandel during his first year, in particular by keeping his hands off the legislature.

While Hughes and Mandel are vastly different, with contrasting styles and ethical sensitivities, the phrase--and, on a more significant level, Hughes' handling of the 1984 budget thus far--seem to show that, with one term behind him, Hughes has come to appreciate that playing politics is part of the art of governing.

Hughes, known around Annapolis for a reserved and often socially awkward manner, seemed to have learned this lesson in time for his reelection campaign this past fall. Facing reelection during the session last year, and not wanting legislative losses to hurt his chances for a second term, the governor became aggressive, demanding votes and even handing out political largesse.

But many people expected a reelected Harry Hughes to retreat "into his shell," as Hughes' Republican opponent, Robert A. Pascal, put it. "He'll go back to sleep for four years," said Pascal, who was walloped at the polls.

Which is to say why Hughes' confident pronouncements and general handling of his fiscal year 1984 budget are interesting.

While predicting that he can "work it out" with the legislature, Hughes and his staff have more carefully laid the groundwork for success this year. They brought House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin and Senate President Melvin A. (Mickey) Steinberg into an early staff meeting so that both would be impressed by the seriousness of the state's fiscal troubles. (Hughes has had to eliminate a projected $133 million deficit for next year in order to submit a balanced budget as required by the state constitution).

Cardin and Steinberg quickly carried the word that things, economically speaking, were going to be tough. Tax increases might not be so bad.

Hughes then took up an idea that worked well for him last session--a carrot-and-stick approach to getting a tax increase through the legislature. Last session he handed out a list of roads that would be fixed if, and only if, the legislature approved a 2-cent increase in the state gasoline tax. The tax passed.

This year he prepared a list of $51 million in popular programs, from targeted education aid that Baltimore City anticipates each year to mosquito control money desired by the Eastern Shore--and dozens of small but helpful statewide programs as well.

He held them out with a ransom note to the legislature, saying, "Give me my tax proposals and budget or else." Under Maryland's system, the governor sets the total budget figure. The legislature can approve or cut--but cannot increase--the budget.

Hughes quickly denied he was trying to force anyone into anything. "They're not hostages," he said, describing his actions as simply a way of showing a possibly recalcitrant legislature that no tax increases could mean, in many areas, no programs.

And, as it turned out, few legislators seemed hostile to the idea.

"He used the power of the office," said Cardin. "It's a good clean use of the governor's budget power. He couldn't get the taxes passed without the list."

Or, as one of the governor's aides put it, "You know these guys aren't going to vote for a tax unless you give them a good excuse to. Sure, we used to say, 'This is the right thing to do, here are the merits.' And it didn't work. So now we say, 'This is the right thing to do and here is how it will help you, or here, if you vote against it, is how it will hurt you.' "

Which is why Harry Hughes can now say of his dealings with the legislature, "We'll work this out."