ANNAPOLIS -- Last winter, when Financial World magazine said Maryland had the "best managed" state government in the nation, legislators here were dumbstruck that Gov. William Donald Schaefer would issue a news release to announce the honor.

The way lawmakers saw it, Schaefer had constantly strained to exceed the state spending limits that the magazine praised lavishly. They remembered prodding him to avoid using a $350 million surplus in ways that would come back to haunt the state. And they thought Schaefer's trademark impatience possibly had contributed to massive cost overruns on the Baltimore trolley line and baseball stadium.

For none of it, however, will the restless 68-year-old Democratic governor apologize.

"Any state that stands still shouldn't represent the people," he warned a group of Prince George's leaders recently. "You can't stand still."

From the day he entered the governor's office in January 1987, the former Baltimore mayor has presided over a robust economy that drove up the amount of money annually available for spending from $9 billion to $11.5 billion, a 27 percent leap over four years.

With it, Schaefer was able to launch major spending programs in economic development, higher education and the environment. After pushing through a 5-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax increase during his first year at the State House, he embarked on a $1 billion expansion of roads and mass transit.

It was Schaefer's good fortune to govern in a time of economic plenty in Maryland, because the years immediately ahead look far from rosy. Now, as he prepares to face the voters for perhaps the last time, Schaefer must trim at least $200 million from current spending plans to keep the budget balanced. Had the General Assembly not cut Schaefer's spending plans along the way, the potential deficit would be at least twice that amount, according to budget analysts.

But for Schaefer, who repeatedly told lawmakers that there was no tomorrow, the pool of funds never seemed to be enough.

Each year, he tried in vain to exceed the legislature's self-imposed spending ceilings. Only at the insistence of the General Assembly was two-thirds of the bonanza generated by the federal tax overhaul returned to taxpayers in the form of added state income tax deductions. And when the rapidly expanding pot of money wouldn't cover the rising cost of programs for the developmentally disabled, he tried twice without success to push through minor tax increases.

"He's a pretty strong-willed individual," said Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and Schaefer's chief budget antagonist. "But the legislature held him back."

By most measures, Schaefer has been a governor afflicted with an edifice complex. Capital programs doubled during his term, totaling $6.6 billion in construction projects. Best known for a $446 million trolley line through Baltimore and a $205 million stadium for the Orioles near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Schaefer also showered millions of dollars in construction programs on universities and public schools.

"There was a tremendous orientation toward bricks and mortar," said Del. Charles J. Ryan (D-Prince George's), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

William S. Shepard, Schaefer's Republican opponent in the Nov. 6 general election, says the incumbent is "monument-oriented."

"One of the things I've been accused of is that I'm a builder," Schaefer said last week. "I am a builder. Major capital projects keep money moving through the economy. They keep a lot of people working and {there are} lots of spinoffs."

One leading lawmaker observed, "Schaefer is a trickle-down kind of guy, rather than a bubble-up kind of guy."

Attempting to explain why he often sought to exceed spending ceilings set by the increasingly assertive 188-member General Assembly, Schaefer added, "I have to point out things because I see needs the legislature doesn't."

In Maryland, the budget is almost the exclusive province of the governor. With greater power than most other governors, Maryland's chief executive establishes spending priorities in the budget that cannot be increased or diverted directly by the legislative branch. A review of his four-year spending record yields important clues to Schaefer's agenda and the demands he faced.

Although all departments got more money during Schaefer's term, the environment, colleges and universities, health programs and public safety captured a growing share of the state budget. Declines, as a percentage of the overall spending, were registered in public education and transportation, while welfare programs remained essentially static.

"His priorities have been protecting the bay and keeping the rest of the state quiet," said Eric M. Uslaner, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

"To a considerable extent, his bias was to build things up around Baltimore, but he also was a very shrewd politician," Uslaner added. "When he does press for new spending, he does it on very popular items, like the environment. Secondly, he doesn't press for broad-based tax increases."

Legislators view Schaefer as a governor who tried to leave his mark in a range of state concerns while still keeping his priorities straight.

"In an expansive period, Human Resources didn't get as much of an increase as economic development," Ryan said. "Aid to Families with Dependent Children and medical assistance got financed, but the first thrust went elsewhere.

"He sees the infrastructure as necessary to stable economic development, and in everything we do he wants the state to be number one."

Schaefer, though often billed as a fiscal conservative, presided over a first-class expansion of state government. As the federal government shifted more programs back to states, the number of state employees in Maryland escalated during his term from 69,000 to more than 76,000. Many of the additional state jobs were in new and expanded prisons and the enhanced programs at the University of Maryland. The legislature denied Schaefer more than 1,300 new state employees.

Though the number of workers on Schaefer's immediate staff remained mostly stable, the governor's office budget nearly doubled as he relied on the advice of a growing number of boards and commissions.

Shepard, a former Foreign Service officer from Potomac, has repeatedly criticized Schaefer's spending record, blaming him for taking the state from a surplus to a deficit in two years. Schaefer's spending "binges," Shepard said, were part of his style.

"He's what he told us he was, a do-it-now guy," Shepard said. "He's obviously not a planner."

Though the state did have a $350 million surplus two years ago, lawmakers and the governor ultimately decided that they would not put it into ongoing programs. Instead, $100 million went into a fund to pay off depositors of failed savings and loan institutions in Maryland and the rest into construction of state buildings, schools, housing, economic development and the Rocky Gap Golf Course in Western Maryland.

"The so-called windfall we got was a great break," Schaefer said at a news conference last week. "We paid off the S&L depositors, which wasn't our fault, but we did it. The other part was used for capital expenditures that had been ignored for years, and part went back to the taxpayers. We didn't add to the operating budget."

As he campaigns for reelection, Schaefer often points to Maryland's AAA bond rating, a distinction held by only a handful of states, as evidence that he has been a prudent steward of the public treasury. He minimizes the effect of the economic downturn and emphasizes the need to keep spending.

"The need for affordable housing, for the light-rail is still there," he said recently. "There'll be more pressure on the homeless and more people on welfare."

Yet, he seems to look forward to a different fiscal environment if he is reelected.

"The tough times make you fight even harder," he said. "It makes you think more."