AFTER A BRIEF pause for the customary morning-after post-mortem in Maryland, the voters and politicians alike had best turn smartly to matters of state -- in particular, the session of the General Assembly that will start in January. The grim fact is that Maryland -- home of the long-green "surplus" this year and last -- can look forward to redder pastures: inflation is eating up any cash cushion that might have existed and, one way or another, the state legislators are in for some rigorous fiscal exercise come January.

Unpleasant though this news is, at least the situation has been recognized by Gov. Harry Hughes. He has talked about tax increases and spending cuts -- both of which are likely to be necessary. Already, state agencies are scrambling to comply with austerity orders, few if any of which are likely to bring joy to the people: state officials and, in turn, their local counterparts, will be staring at possible cuts in state aid for welfare, education and health programs.

There is also the expensive business of transportation, and therein lies an important tax matter: gas-tax revenues have been coming in well below estimates, while roads and bridges, ports and subway construction all await necessary spending. This points to an increase in the gasoline tax, which state legislators should prepare themselves and their constituents to accept. The danger remains that the old rural-roads-vs.-urban-mass-transit feuding will resume and result in the usual outbreak of inertia in the final hours of legislative deliberations.

Gov. Hughes, whose personal style has so far been reflected in a relatively quiet administration, can sense the possibility of wilder times once the impact of austerity hits home. That is why he already has been sounding the proper alarm about tax increases and spending cuts. Responsible state legislators should respond not by waiting until the January session to act, but by doubling their efforts in the next few weeks to come up with reasonable financial approaches -- combining budget cuts with gas-tax proposals -- for immediate consideration by their colleagues when the next session begins.