IF THERE is an upbeat note in the financial pressures that threaten government services in Maryland, it is the latest agreement between Gov. William Donald Schaefer, State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. to work together on a no-layoffs budget. The objective is to come up with an answer to Maryland's estimated $423 million budget shortfall that will exhaust other money-saving measures before employees are fired.

Earlier Gov. Schaefer had said that 1,800 layoffs were necessary -- a move he emphasized was personally painful but seemingly inevitable. But the legislative leaders won his agreement to take a fresh, joint look at the budget in exchange for their support for him on other matters coming before the General Assembly. Sen. Miller noted that the legislators had pointed out to the governor that "we campaigned up and down the state without mentioning layoffs . . . that perhaps it would be unfair to mention them at this time. No one in the legislature wants to bind the governor's hands . . . but we wanted to let him know our concerns."

While the governor has not ruled out layoffs if the economy continues to deteriorate, his willingness to review programs and policies for other savings offers a measure of relief extending beyond those who would have been laid off. Exactly what cuts will be chosen from the legislature's list and from the budget developed by the governor is not clear, but a potential dividend lies in the possibility of some harmony in Annapolis and some leeway for the governor to press other matters on his agenda. The spending outlook for the next year is bleak, but now that the no-layoffs message has been received, serious budget work can begin.