THE ANNAPOLIS CRITICS of Gov. Harry Hughes still mumble about his lack of political pizazz, his cautious style and his aloofness during the legislative sessions. All true -- but both the state of the state and the governor's fiscal plans for it after his first year in office look unusually sound. Whatever else Mr. Hughes promised the voters, he has given Maryland and is government a better image, something long and desperately needed. Along with it, the state is enjoying eceptionally good financial fortune, in the form of a large revenue surplus. Now the governor has outlined modest proposals for spending most of that surplus, and by the large they make sense.
The picture is still incomplete, since the most important immediate issue -- transportation -- has yet to be addressed. Gov. Hughes is reserving this subject for a separate, special message that is bound to have a significant fiscal impact, because the general-revenue surplus is not a source of financing for transit. Help for Metro, for Baltimore's transit system and for highway improvements throughout the state will require revisions in gasoline-related taxes and strong leadership to get them enacted.
Still, the financial message from Gov. Hughes so far manages to be modest enough to draw praise from fiscal conservatives as well as from other legislators seeking imporvements in welfare programs, education and the state's prison system. The governor has noted that "Maryland is, whether we like it or not, an increasingly congested and urbanized state," a condition that makes heavy financial demands for these programs.
To counterbalance some of this spending, the governor's budget would provide relatively small increases -- less than 3 percent in most cases -- for other parts of the state government bureaucracy. Overall spending would increase by 6.7 percent, compared with a 10 percent increase this year and 11 percent last year. That's a package that most legislators find quite attractive, even if they do have some ideas of their own on some of the specifics.