PUBLIC OFFICIALS in Maryland may come and go, but when they do it on the cuff, to Bermuda and back -- and when the cuff belongs to the state's bankers -- they do so at the expense of their reputations. Like crabs and beer, legislators and special-interest money have been going together in this state for as long as anyone can remember. The latest politicians to glom onto a freebie frolic are three influential lawmakers who accepted a blank-check come-on from the Maryland Bankers' Association, good for plane fares, luxury-resort accommodationand meals for themselves as well as their wives.

The Bermuda trio consists of Sen. Jerome F. Connel Sr. (D-Anne Arundel), who happens to have been the sponsor of a banking bill that became law this week; Sen. Harry J. McGuirk (D-Baltimore), chairman of a committee that approved the bill, which raises interest rates on consumer loans; and Del. John R. Hargreaves (D-Caroline), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The occasion for their outing was the bankers' annual convention; the three are alumni of this popular institution, having attended last year's in Boca Raton.Their duties in Bermuda were slight. They appeared at a discussion, not to speak but to answer a handful of questions and be applauded. Sen. McGuirk and Del. Hargreaves pitched in to tend bar at one cocktail party.

Let us be clear: attending conventions and exchanging information can be useful for legislators and can serve the public interest. Nor are we saying that the banking bill that evolved in Annapolis this year is not a sound and justifiable measure. But the acceptance of expensive free trips by legislators gives the appearance of a reward for services rendered -- and of expectations of help on other legislative matters to come. In the interest of all Maryland legislators who work to avoid conflicts of interest -- or the appearance of them -- the legislature should tighten its rules.