Gov. Harry Hughes, campaigning for election, had promised it. The state legislature's leadership, in a season of zeal, had promoted it. And in April 1979, Maryland citizens were told that a much-heralded brand of tax relief was finally on its way: rebates for elderly apartment dwellers of low and moderate income.

For the most part, it didn't happen.

Of 20,000 people who were expected to receive tax refunds from the state this year under the elderly renter's program, 6,122 actually have gotten checks. Instead of a predicted $150, the average check has been for $84. And instead of returning $3 million to elderly renters in its first year, the program has distributed only about one-sixth of that amount.

Meanwhile, thousands of elderly citizens the program was designed to help have applied for the tax relief, only to be turned away by regulations that state officials now say were badly conceived.

renter's relief formed only part of a $77-million tax package enacted in 1979 that on the whole seems to have performed as promised. But this foundering piece of that omnibus legislation shows how the state government's services, without any deliberate sabotage or startling official incompetence, can go far awry between their publicized debuts in the legislature and their often uncharted delivery to citizens.

In this case, the failure can be traced in many ways to the behavior of politicians scrambling to meet a perceived public demand, tax relief. But the renter's program also shows how fiscal experts, while routinely accorded seer status in Annapolis, frequently rely on murky and overstated prognostications which, when applied back in the neighborhoods, turn out to be simply wrong.

The story begins with the root of all tax programs: a formula. Like most tax legislation, the heart of the elderly renter's bill was researched and pinned together in 1979 by a handful of technical professionals, working in cloudy recesses of statistics and calculus that most legislators -- not to speak of citizens -- never really try to understand.

The chief researchers were Gene Burner, a respected tax man then on the staff of a legislative committee, and William Ratchford, the gangly, curly-haired chief of the legislature's Fiscal Services department who has earned a place as a guru of state appropriation and finance.

Burner and Ratchford were not the most visible architects of the legislation, of course. The orginal bill had been introduced by a delegate from Montgomery County, Lucille Maurer, who proposed that elderly renters be given an income tax credit if they paid more rent than they could afford.

Hughes, who had advocated the expansion of tax credits to renters both in his campaign and in his "State of the State" address that year, also had his staff working on the problem, and they eventually convinced Maurer to substitute a program that would allow renters to apply for direct payments, rather than income tax credits, from the state.

This proposal was modeled on the already-existing "circuit-breaker" tax program, which refunded some property tax payments to low- and moderate-income homeowners. These homeowners, it was believed, were being unfairly penalized by rapidly inflating property values and the taxes thus dictated.

The theory of the new program was that renters also suffered from rising property taxes that were passed along by landlords. However, although all homeowners know what they pay in property taxes, the average renter has no idea what part of his monthy payment is for taxes. So it was left to Burner and Ratchford to figure out how many elderly renters there were in the state with incomes of $16,000 or less, how much rent they paid, and how much of that rent was used by landlords to cover property taxes.

Based on these figures, Burner and Ratchford further had to extrapolate how many renters the state might help and how much they might receive under a rebate program that, like the howeowners' circuit-breaker, returned property tax payments when they exceeded a set percentage of a household's income. Those bottom-line statistics -- who and how much -- were the ones the legislators cared about, and on which the measure would be promoted and sold.

Theoretically, Burner and Ratchford had a strickly technical task before them. In reality, however, the scientific means of putting together the formula were crude, at best. The largest problem was determining how many renters there were over 60 years old with incomes of $16,000 or less -- and how much rent they paid. "We had some data," recalls Burner now, "but it was based on the 1970 census, with the figures escalated over the years. Everyting about it could have been wrong.

"In the end, it was so ballpark-ish that everybody was just basically guessing. We really had no idea about what the universe was -- how many potentially qualified people were out there. And we figured we'd just better be outside what it would really cost so we wouldn't end up with the program underfunded."

The other question -- how much of the average rent payment was used by landlords for property taxes -- proved to be equally hard. A landlord association from Baltimore City reported that about 12-13 percent or more of their rent collections went to property taxes. Prince George's County landlords contended that it was more like 10 percent. And owners from the state's rural areas, where taxes are low, insisted that they used only a slight percentage of rents for taxes, less than half that of the other jurisdictions.

So the question became whose figures to use, a question that soon turned more political than technical. The legislators were not, or course, really interested in figuring out what the actual percentage of rent was that went to property taxes. What they wanted was a figure that, when plugged into Burner and Ratchford's other numbers, would give a reasonable number of people tax credits of a reasonably meaningful amount -- without spending so much that other taxpayers would howl.

For that year, while Hughes and House Speaker Benjamin Cardin were solidly behind a renters rebate program, the state Senate was preoccupied with other forms of tax relief and would have preferred to put off relief for renters. In order to pass the program, it had to be small, yet big enough to seem important to all the politicians who had championed it and the people who presumably had waited for it.

So the legislators working on the renters bill in the House Ways and Means Committee asked Ratchford and Burner what would happen if the percentage of rent devoted to taxes were determined to be 10 percent. They punched out their jury-rigged, 1970-census equations and came up with 20,000 renters at $150 each for $3 million. That was a good number of people and a convenient amount of money for the politicians. Ten percent became the figure.

Of course, the two men had deliberately overstated the projected spending somewhat, so as not to risk running out of money in mid-year, and leading legislators knew it. Nevertheless, 20,000 and $3 million became the watchword figures -- the sales slogan and promotional hooks, the catch phrases that appeared in the newspapers.

"You see, we wanted to get the bill through," explained Del. Idamae Garrott (D-Montgomery), who was one of its key supporters. "We felt if we went whole-hog on the [property tax] percentage we wouldn't be able to pass it."

The only problem was, as Burner put it, "we were wrong." And not just by the factor of a budget-watching safety margin. The fact was that whether 10 percent was an accurate or inaccurate figure, not many people could qualify when it was used.

In the end, all that expanded data from the 1970 census collapsed around a very simple truth: if one made $8,000 per year, one would never receive a tax credit, because a rent of about $200 a month would be needed to fit the 10 percent formula, and landlords do not rent $200 a month apartments to people with $8,000 incomes.

Similarly, an elderly person with an income of $16,000 -- the maximum -- would have to pay $600 a month in rent to qualify. And who spends $600 of their $1,300 a month on an apartment?

As a result, instead of reaching elderly renters of moderate income, the program could only reach the very poorest tenants. Robert Young, who administers the program for the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, says that 95 percent of the people who received checks this year had incomes of $7,000 or less.

Those people are difficult for state bureaucrats to locate under any circumstances. And for this one, renters had to fill out a form and send it in to get a rebate. To do that, somebody had to explain it to them.

However, the legislature, in its anxiety over the cost of the program and the Senate's distaste for it, neglected to appropriate any funds or additional staff to carry it out.

Young, a young, earnest Yale law graduate whose job it was to distribute as many checks as possible, had to assign 40 people in his office working on the homeowners' tax program to work on the renters' program as well, and had to pirate the somewhat meager $50,000 in start-up costs out of the homeowners' administrative budget. Under the direction of Burner, who became the secretary of the Assessments and Taxation department, Young had pamphlets printed up and distributed to senior citizens groups, and begged for free advertising time from area television stations.

Young did not, however, elicit any help from landlords, the people with the quickest access to renters. He had been forbidden to do that by the legislative leaders, who were worried that the program would lead owners to raise rents arbitrarily, assuming that every tenant they told about it would get a rebate.

In the end, Young received a substantial number of applications only in Prince George's County, which had its own rent relief program for the elderly and required everyone on the county roles to apply for the state program. A third of those accepted for relief by Prince George's were deemed unqualified for help under the state's rules.

"Anyone who is knowledgeable can see that the 10 percent formula doesn't work," Young said. "And it's left us with the toughest group to reach. It's just a question of how much you can do."

In all, more than 3,000 elderly renters were rebuffed when they asked for the tax rebates, including many who could have used the help. The letter they got back from Young's office explained it to them this way: "It has been determined that you are ineligible for a credit because the gross income for your household, when compared to the assumed property taxes included in your rental payments, exceeds the refund formula provisions of this program."

"It's absurd," said Barbara Schiller, a Montgomery County tenant leader who knows several elderly renters who were rejected. "They can't understand what happened and neither can I. They thought this program was set up for them."

Ironically, even though everyone from Burner and Ratchford to Cardin agrees that the renter's program isn't working well, and half a dozen delegates are planning legislation to correct the formula, the chances for an improvement during the next session of the General Assembly, which begins in January 1981, are not good. Since 1979, the code phrase of politics has changed, it seems, from tax relief to fiscal restraint because of falling state revenue.

"It has not reached what we anticipated," says Hughes spokesman Gene Oishi. "But we are in a very tight fiscal situation and this [1981] is not a a year for tax cuts."

"It's more an issue of equity than of dollars," says Cardin, who helped push the program past the Senate in 1979. "But it's going to be difficult to get anything like that passed this year [1981]."