ONLY A FEW short and fat months ago, the state of Maryland was merrily rolling in long green, fiscally fit and boasting what is loosely termed "a surplus." Just as many of us suspected, though, the numbers would start to change, and harder times would mean declines in revenues. Now, that cash cushion is looking awfully thin, and any leftover money can't really be considered "surplus" because soon the government will be shaking the piggy bank for all it's worth -- and looking for more.

There's no reason yet for panicking or pointing fingers at Annapolis, since we're not talking about a financial crisis of the sort so many other state and local governments are experiencing. Still, what last year amounted to a budget surplus of nearly $300 million is now down to about $55 million; income tax receipts declined over the summer months, sales tax revenues are down and some of the tax-relief measures instituted by the administration have trimmed the amount of unallocated money. this is "bad news," as Gov. Harry Hughes notes, but should not entail any huge tax changes next year.

But now as before, Maryland has serious -- and expensive -- transportation business to attend to: with gas-tax revenues coming in well below estimates, the state's roads and bridges are in bad shape, Baltimore's port could stand some big help, and bills for subway construction keep going up and coming in. Once again, Gov. Hughes says he is considering an increase in gasoline tax rates next year -- and this time he should push it.

Instead of the current 9-cents-a-gallon tax, the state should switch to a tax based on a percentage of the gasoline price. This wasn't at all popular in the legislature last time around, when the lawmakers' gazes kept drifting to that pot of extra money. The danger now is that old battles between the rural-road and urban-mass transit blocs will start up again and end in a stalemate. That is why Gov. Hughes and other responsible legislators had best begin making their case now for a percentage tax on gasoline. Some members of the legislature may prefer to argue over roads and transit, but the cold fiscal fact is that their constituents can't afford another rerun of these do-nothing shenanigans.