The death in the final seconds of the 1983 session of legislation that would have stripped the Burning Tree Club of a tax break because it refuses to admit women offers prima facie evidence that the Maryland General Assembly is still a place where reform is something that exists on paper but not in reality.

The bill's defeat had nothing to do with its merits. Both the House of Delegates and the Senate voted for it. It was a straightforward piece of legislation that said that any club or organization that wanted to discriminate was free to do so but the state was not going to sanction that discrimination with continued tax exemptions.

In its final form, the bill took out charitable groups, such as the Elks, Moose and Masons, but left in country clubs, specifically Burning Tree. That all-male golfing bastion has an initiation fee of $12,000 and charges its 600 members annual dues of $1,700. It also receives a $152,000 tax break each year because of state open-space laws: By promising not to develop its 350 acres of land, the club gets an exemption.

The reason the bill died was that the good old boys decided to kill it. Speaker of the House Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore City) could have interceded and saved the bill. He didn't and that mistake hurt him politically, hurt Montgomery County and, most of all, hurt the legislature.

No bill should die the way this one did. Yet, every year it happens and every year reform is promised. It may be there now on paper but, in fact, little has changed in the last 10 years.

The old line conservative politicians, who are still a majority in Annapolis, viewed this as another Montgomery County white-hat bill. Even though the bill only affected Montgomery, they saw it as a potentially dangerous precedent: If you let Montgomery County pass laws against people for discriminating, the next thing you know others will start getting the same silly idea in their heads.

What's more, they saw this as a test of their power. To them, Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), the chief sponsor of the legislation who worked almost around-the-clock to get it passed, is a classic example of the kind of pointy-headed liberal they can't stand. Defeating Bainum was as important to them as defeating the bill.

When Del. Paul E. Weisengoff, the definitive Baltimore pol, the antithesis of Bainum, boasted publicly that he would kill the bill, he spoke for many of his colleagues. What is different about Weisengoff is that he relishes his reputation as a black hat. Most of the others try to deny it.

Weisengoff was the most visible villain in the final night melodrama. But it was Cardin, and Ways and Means Committee chairman Tyras S. Athey (D-Anne Arundel), who put him in position to play that starring role. Athey didn't want the bill passed any more than Weisengoff. So, when problems in writing the amendment forced the appointment of a conference committee, Athey made certain the measure would never come out of that committee.

Conference committees are formed when a piece of legislation passes both houses but with different language. Three members from each body are appointed to work out compromise language and put the bill in final form for passage.

In this case, according to Del. Donald B. Robertson (D-Montgomery), the House majority leader, it may have been impossible to come up with language that would have put the bill in the posture everyone wanted: Burning Tree in, Elks, Moose and Masons out. Taking out the latter three might have been to sanction other groups that the legislature didn't want to sanction.

Nevertheless, the three men appointed to the House conference committee had no intention of trying to save the bill.

Athey knew exactly what he was doing when he appointed Weisengoff, Del. William Burgess (D-Baltimore) and Del. A. Wade Kach (R-Baltimore County). So did Cardin. Yet, Cardin refused to force Athey to change the names. Instead, he talked about setting a bad precedent by intervening.

Weisengoff blatantly stalled throughout the final day; he tried to hold the conference committee meeting in a bathroom to keep the press away; and, ultimately, he carried out his boast to kill the legislation.

But Weisengoff never hid his intentions. He always has played the game this way, and as long as he is allowed to get away with it, he will continue to do so. Only leaders, such as Cardin and Athey, can stop the Weisengoffs of the world. In this case, Athey also wanted the bill dead. So for him, Weisengoff was merely a tool.

Cardin, however, believes in the legislation. Yet, he let tradition--not interfering with a chairman's conference committee appointments--kill it. Leaders are suppose to change traditions if they lead to bad government. Cardin plans to run for governor in 1986. If he is to succeed, he is going to have to be far more forceful in the future and not let the Atheys and Weisengoffs push him around the way they did last week.

Even though the Burning Tree bill affected few people and was basically a minor piece of legislation, its defeat is a depressing commentary on the state of the General Assembly.

Perhaps Sen. Julian L. Lapides, the Baltimore liberal who has made a habit of infuriating his colleagues in 21 years in Annapolis with his nasty penchant for truth-telling, summed it up best.

"I think it would be easier to pass a discrimination bill in this legislature than to pass an antidiscrimination bill," Lapides told the Senate. "And there would be a lot less talking and complaining about it, too."

In 1983, the truth in that statement is sad.