Maryland will have to pay the federal government $106,164 for food stamps stolen seven years ago from a state-operated distribution center, as the result of a U.S. Supreme Court decison released yesterday.

The court, without comment, refused Maryland's request to consider overturning a lower federal court order that went against the state.

The issue stems from four incidents of food stamp theft in 1976. Maryland reported the loss to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the subsidy program for the needy, and the agency told the state it would have to cover the theft, as required by a 1971 regulation.

Maryland received more than $86 million in food stamps that fiscal year.

The state refused to cover the cost of the lost stamps and the USDA billed the Maryland account. That payment was held up pending several court suits and eventually a lower federal court rejected Maryland's arguments that the 1971 regulation exceeded the secretary of agriculture's authority.

The state maintained that the Agriculture Department does not have the authority to "reduce a state's food stamp grant" simply on the secretary of agriculture's say-so. In addition, Maryland argued that the federal government would first have to take the state to court and prove that the funds were due.

Maryland appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to rule on the question of the secretary's authority to promulgate the 1971 regulation.

According to Maryland assistant Attorney General Diana Motz, the case is "not too dissimilar" from the one involving Secretary of Education Terrel Bell that came down several weeks ago. In that case, the court ruled that the federal government could force states to pay back federal education grant money it claims the states misspent. "It allows reduction of state grants without any due process," Motz said.

An attorney for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, which supervises food stamp distribution, said it is possible the state might pursue the case.