IT USED to be that smart politicians hid a little budget money here and there for their next election year -- when they would suddenly make potholes disappear, parks bloom with new benches and play equipment or new car titles fire out of computers on demand. But now that nearly every budget known to taxpayers is being run through the wringer, many self-conscious elected officials are doing just the opposite for the campaign: they pull back that budget, then cut and run. And if the budget contains provisions for increases in their own salaries, many are saying: no thanks, they'll forgo those raises. This produces a variety of reactions -- from embarrassment/anger to belittlement/insult -- from others who are due similar increases. Is it playing politics or setting an example?

Both, probably, but why a big fuss? Take a most recent local example in Fairfax County, where Board of Supervisors Chairman Audrey Moore decided to forgo a $3,000 pay increase, the last installment of a $24,000 raise she supported five years ago. Her refusal was made quietly, in a confidential memorandum she sent to the county personnel chief. Word of Mrs. Moore's move sparked various reactions among other supervisors. Fellow Democrat Kate Hanley, for example, noted that she spends the least of any supervisor from her office budget. Another, Lilla Richards, said board members deserve the money, which now goes to $45,000 a year. Freezing the salaries at $45,000 "for the next four years is enough of a sacrifice for any candidate or challenger," Mrs. Richards said, adding, "There are some very wealthy people on the board of supervisors, but there are others who need the money." Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell, a Republican who is Mrs. Moore's harshest critic on the board, called the chairman's action "the most outlandish bunch of grandstanding I have ever seen." She added, "I wouldn't insult the intelligence of the electorate by not taking the money."

If that's an insult, the electorate in Maryland has all the reason in the world to demand an apology from, among others, leaders in the House of Delegates who have just announced that they will forgo raises this year and will help other legislators who also wish to return their $2,000 increases to feed the state budget. By this standard, Maryland Comptroller Louis Goldstein -- who has won more elections than anybody can keep track of -- has lost it with his decision to return $5,000 of his pay raise. And thus Gov. William Donald Schaefer has honored the intelligence of this electorate by announcing that he's going to accept his raise from $85,000 to $120,000.

Leaving aside the extent of any generosity or the degree of personal sacrifice involved, what's so awful about symbolic gestures of this kind? We think they are constructive. When the Maryland state senator and three delegates from Prince George's County's 25th District said they would forgo their raises, Sen. Albert R. Wynn acknowledged that the cuts would be largely symbolic. Still, he added, "We've cut education, health care, welfare. We're saying that we're willing to share the unpleasantness." Makes sense to us.