As representatives of what is known here as the "litter lobby"--Giant Food, beverage distributors and others--watched from the balcony, the Senate gave preliminary approval today to an antilitter tax that environmentalists charge is weak, ineffective and intended to scuttle efforts to pass stonger measures.

Business and labor groups, which often are on opposing sides of issues here, joined together to help draft and fiercely lobby for the legislation as an alternative to requiring mandatory deposits on beverage containers, a method of litter control long sought by environmentalists.

Attempts to strengthen the bill produced one of the session's bitterest exchanges on the Senate floor. Several senators who offered amendments, most of which failed, assailed the bill as a "sell out" to industry that substitutes advertising campaigns and slogans for recycling and other methods of resource recovery.

The bill that got preliminary Senate approval today--and is given the best chance of passage of any antilitter bill offered in recent years--would finance a $1 million antilitter program by imposing a $10 tax on about 56,000 of the state's retailers and a $250 tax on manufacturers and distributors of bottles, aluminum cans and papers.

A litter-tax bill introduced last year imposed much heftier taxes. For example, it would have cost Giant Food about $3,000.

This year's proposal would cost Giant about $1,750. Last year's bill didn't get out of committee in the Senate and was defeated by seven votes in the House.

While the litter tax is intended to raise money for recycling, public-awareness programs, an antilitter logo and new garbage cans, critics said that most of the money would go to administration and collection of the tax.

An analysis of the program by the legislature's fiscal department showed that only about $50,000 would be used for recycling and resource recovery grants.

The Senate agreed to an amendment mandating that 80 percent of the money raised by the tax be used for recycling programs.

"Let's use the money for resource recovery and not the advertising campaign this will turn into," said Sen. John Cade (D-Anne Arundel), author of the amendment.

One other amendment that won Senate support increased the number of public members on a council administering the litter program and removed several business members.

However, the most significant amendment--converting the litter tax into a five-cent mandatory deposit--was defeated by a 31-to-10 vote.

"This is a silly, frivolous program that will be consumed by administrative costs," said Sen. Gerald Winegrad (D-Anne Arundel), who tried to amend the proposal into a bottle bill.

"The public support for a bottle bill is being subverted by the beverage industry efforts," he said.

Supporters of the bill said litter taxes work in 11 states and accused environmentalists of twisting the intent of the bill.

"There is a fraud being perpetrated by a small group of environmentalists that the position they have is the only acceptable position," said Sen. Jerome Connell (D-Anne Arundel), the bill's sponsor, as he glared at his county colleague Winegrad.

"They think their position is the only position."

When he left the floor after the vote, Connell was congratulated by members of the "litter lobby."

The litter debate has been going on here for the last few years, but it has taken on a harsher note this year because the affected industries--from bottle and aluminum can manufacturers and workers to Bethlehem Steel--started lobbying early.