Since 1979, Annapolis lobbyists have spent countless hours and earned hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting over a relatively arcane piece of legislation known as the "eyedrops bill," a measure that would allow Maryland optometrists to use eyedrops to dilate their patients' pupils.

This year, the lobbyists are at it again, fighting hammer and tong over a measure that would affect about 350 optometrists and their foes in the medical community, the state's 250 ophthalmologists.

As always, the battle is an entertaining sideshow. And it promises to prove once again there are many more ways to kill a bill than simply having merit on one's side.

Maryland is one of a dwindling number of states that still forbids optometrists -- professionals who do not hold medical degrees and who specialize in determining the need for eyeglasses -- from using eyedrops as a diagnostic tool. Ophthalmologists, who are medical doctors, have always succeeded -- with the help of their high-priced lobbyists -- in convincing the legislature that the optometrists are not medically qualified to use what the ophthalmologists say are potentially dangerous drugs.

Today, a stream of witnesses for each side presented arguments to committees in the House and Senate. There was lots of talk of doing what is right for the consumer. But the issue, as so many in Annapolis, boils down to a high-priced lobbying war.

A wily maneuver by one of the lobbyists, Bruce Bereano, who is being paid $20,000 by the Maryland Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons to defeat the bill, may keep Maryland from joining most other states.

Bereano's ploy threatens to upset the hopes of Ira C. Cooke, who is getting $12,500 for representing the optometrists. Cooke thought that 1985 offered the best chance for the eyedrops bill since 1981.

His hope sprang from a reshuffling of the Senate committee structure that transferred jurisdiction for the eyedrops bill from the hostile Finance Committee to the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. The vice chairman of the latter panel is Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's), a practicing optometrist.

Dorman got the bill assigned to his committee as a consolation for not getting the committee chairmanship, said a member of the Senate leadership -- a change that vastly improved its chances. Dorman said today he has not decided whether to vote on the bill.

Sensing victory in the Senate, the Maryland Optometric Association decided not to introduce a companion measure in the House Environmental Matters Committee, where a slim majority opposes the bill. But Bereano, according to legislative sources, pulled a fast one on Cooke, persuading Del. Dennis C. Donaldson (D-Prince George's) to introduce the bill on the House side. The last time Donaldson voted on the measure, in 1981, he opposed it.

Donaldson denied today that he introduced the bill on behalf of Bereano. But one senator knowledgeable about the affair said, "Bereano got Donaldson to put in the bill so it would be killed in the House and there would be no need for the Senate to consider its bill." Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County) has said he will not let the bill tie up the Senate if it has already been killed in the House.

If the bill dies, the lobbyists are sure to be back next year, squabbling over an issue that provides a steady source of income. When it was suggested to Bereano today that the worst possible outcome for both he and Cooke would be for the lucrative issue to be settled once and for all, Bereano replied: "You're right. Especially this year. My son is having his bar mitzvah."