ANNAPOLIS, JAN. 22 -- Faced with the highest welfare caseload in a decade, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer hopes to tighten eligibility requirements for temporarily disabled people seeking public assistance, according to aides and state legislators.

The plan, which would go to the General Assembly for approval, would represent the first cutback in welfare entitlement programs ordered by the governor as he scrambles to cope with a recession, and would affect about 6,200 people in this budget year.

The welfare changes were outlined Monday for key lawmakers and would affect only those individuals receiving general public assistance, a state-funded program that gives maximum grants of $205 a month to working-age individuals -- mostly men -- identified as having short-term disabilities.

Beneficiaries have such problems as heart disease, mental illness and alcoholism and are not eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children or for permanent disability assistance under federal programs.

One advocate of the general assistance program called its beneficiaries "the poorest of the poor." Richard Dowling, executive director for the Maryland Catholic Conference, called it "the ultimate safety net program."

But the reaction of leading lawmakers to Schaefer's plan has been supportive.

"He's not eliminating GPA; he's downsizing it to meet the revenues," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), whose subcommittee oversees social services spending. Rawlings noted that only about half of the states provide a state-funded welfare program for the disabled.

Added Del. Gary R. Alexander (D-Prince George's), "I don't know if we have a choice."

To cut back welfare costs at a time when rolls are rapidly growing, Schaefer plans to tighten eligibility rules to require that a health problem last at least six months, rather than the current 30 days. Also, he plans to limit overall spending on general public assistance, in effect ending the entitlement feature that authorizes benefits for anyone who qualifies for them. Without a ceiling, the program is projected to grow from the current 21,000 to 28,000 at the end of fiscal 1992.

Helen Szablya, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources, called the proposed changes painful.

"The other choices we had were much worse," said Szablya, adding that officials avoided cutting AFDC, child care assistance and foster care programs. "It will have a damaging effect, but it will be the least of all."

Driven mostly by a higher-than-expected AFDC caseload, the agency's projected budget deficit has jumped $9 million, to $33 million, during the year that ends June 30. As a result, administration officials said, the cuts have had to reach the "draconian stage."

General public assistance rolls hit a 20-year high of 25,000 in 1981, during the last recession, but are projected to continue a steep climb unless new limits are imposed.

According to figures presented to lawmakers, benefits would be denied to an estimated 6,200 people during the current budget year and more than 8,800 next year under the Schaefer proposal. Savings in the next year would total $20.9 million.

Last year, Schaefer ordered cuts in programs that assist in paying for kidney dialysis and prescription drugs but reinstated them after a public outcry.

Some lawmakers, in fact, said the proposal to cut benefits could be a backdoor attempt to bolster support for taxes.