Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, acting on some of the most controversial legislation of the 1986 General Assembly session, signed measures today moving Maryland's presidential primary from May to March and capping certain jury awards in personal injury cases.

Hughes also signed legislation stripping the state Human Relations Commission of its authority to act in sex discrimination cases involving insurance companies' rate-setting practices. His action ended a hard-fought, four-year legislative battle between the insurance industry and members of the legislature's women's caucus, who bitterly opposed the measure.

Hughes acknowledged that he struggled with his decision to sign the measure joining Maryland to a movement by several southern political leaders to increase their region's influence in presidential candidate selection by holding their primaries earlier and on the same date. Maryland will join 10 southern and border states, including Virginia, in holding its presidential primary on the first Tuesday in March.

Hughes aides said his reservations centered on his belief that Maryland has more in common politically with mid-Atlantic states such as New York, New Jersey and Delaware, but no such regional effort has been advanced by those states. He said he was persuaded to sign the bill out of a concern that, if he did not, Maryland "would be left with one of the latest primaries, and that would make it even less significant."

Several measures Hughes signed are aimed at bringing down the skyrocketing cost of liability insurance by capping certain jury awards in personal injury cases and making it more difficult to bring lawsuits against doctors. One new law caps at $350,000 the amount victims in personal injury cases can collect for noneconomic or "pain and suffering" damages. Another requires that people who claim to be victims of medical malpractice present evidence before they are allowed to file a lawsuit.

Although opponents of the measures, ranging from consumer advocate Ralph Nader to representatives of Maryland trial lawyers, insisted that the measures would do nothing to bring insurance rates down, the assembly and Hughes supported the bills in the hope that the rate of increase would be reduced.

"I have regrets because there's no question that some people are going to be hurt," said state Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), who was among the leaders of the effort to pass the insurance package. "But in the General Assembly you do the best you can with whatever you have before you. We hope that this will at least begin to address the problem."

Leaders of the assembly's women's caucus said they were upset that Hughes decided to support a measure stripping the Human Relations Commission of its role in reviewing, along with the insurance commissioner, complaints of sex discrimination involving rate setting. The Human Relations Commission will continue to have joint authority over complaints involving matters of race, creed and color.

Hughes said he signed the bill despite what he said was "my own personal view that rates should be unisex." He said he believed that rate-setting and underwriting practices should be administered by one agency and that the law will not weaken any antidiscrimination provisions.

Hughes faced difficult decisions with respect to several of the more than 240 bills he signed today in the last such ceremony of his eight-year tenure as governor. He vetoed more than 100 bills, although only nine measures were rejected for policy reasons. The remainder were vetoed because they were duplicate or near-duplicate versions of measures that Hughes signed.

The bill-signing ceremony followed a whirlwind morning trip to New York in a bid to advance the sale of a long-crippled Silver Spring thrift association, one of the major stumbling blocks to Hughes' efforts to resolve the lingering savings and loans crisis. Apparently seeking to revive the negotiations over the sale of First Maryland Savings and Loan Association to a federally chartered Baltimore thrift, Hughes traveled by state helicopter to a meeting with Federal Home Loan Bank Board Chairman Edwin Gray, whose agency must approve any merger of a federally chartered thrift.