LIKE A PARENT who leaves a house full of youngsters to do as they please and then comes back to find the house in a shambles, Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes -- after drifting away in a fog of indecision when the General Assembly could have used a little parental guidance -- now returns to discover financial pandemonium in the state legislature. While he was "out," the lawmakers were merrily ripping his tax and spending proposals to shreds. So now we find the governor madly scrambling for the political Scotch tape and Krazy Glue in an 11th-hour effort to patch together some reasonable facsimile of a financial package.

You can't tell how it will look yet, because everyday a piece or two falls off again. One large chunk, for example, is the gasoline tax increase proposal, which the governor has picked up and dropped many times. When we last looked in, Mr. Hughes had stopped trying to glue this proposal to a pay raise for state employees and was ready to settle for something in a slightly smaller size, along the lines of a gasoline tax proposed long ago by Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery). But during all that time the governor was out mulling his options, the lawmakers complicated things by choosing up sides in the House and Senate and then subdividing again into regional factions for still more political pillow fights.

At stake in all this are some extremely important matters -- Medicaid funds for poor people, aid to education, transportation money and so on -- that affect not only the state government's functions but also the financial and political futures of county and local governments -- not to mention the constituents to whom these services have direct meaning. Gov. Hughes will have his hands full in these closing days of the legislature, but there is no question that his leadership is essential in the necessary attempts at legislative compromise.