For House of Delegates Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, the 1981 General Assembly ended early this morning in a sea of confetti with a chorus of cheers from his colleagues. The Speaker smiled, and with good reason.

In a lackluster legislative year full of losers, Ben Cardin was a winner.

His stewardship of the rambunctious House won him high marks. For his own city of Baltimore he achieved a slew of legislative coups, notably funds for public schools, the municipal zoo and Memorial Stadium, in a time of retrenchment. And in a session of often tense legislative squabbling, when lawmakers frequently sounded like Rodney Dangerfield, he managed, somehow, to get respect.

Cardin was not the only one to come out ahead in the three-month legislative session that ended at midnight last night. So did the special interests -- including truckers, contractors, bankers, doctors and lawyers -- heavily represented in the capitol corridors by full-time, paid lobbyists.

Consumers, whose volunteer representatives were rarely seen during the session, were in many ways the big losers. Measures meant to benefit them were, for the most part, either killed or gutted. Legislation, meanwhile, that sought to impose stricter ethical standards in the statehouse seemed out of synch with the new mood and were openly derided and defeated.

Many of this year's winners won by not losing. The eye doctors and the contractors won with filibusters that left bills they didn't like on the casualty list of measures never voted up or down as the session ended.

There were few notable exceptions to what public interest groups regarded overall as a dreary picture. A bill providing limited protection to tenants of buildings being converted to condominiums survived. The lawmakers, despite heavy industry lobbying, also abolished a procedure under which large utilities could get quick rate increases.

While taxes aimed at shoring up the state's sagging transportation trust fund failed to win approval, the legislature enacted bills directing the state to subsidize commuter lines connecting Washington with Baltimore and Brunswick and to rebuild the Choptank River Bridge traveled by thousands of ocean-bound city dwellers each year.

And although tavern owners won a major victory as efforts to raise the drinking age died in the end-of-the-session crunch, the bulk of Gov. Harry Hughes' drunken driving bills passed.

In one of the few effective efforts by citizen activists this year, survivors and relatives of victims of drunk driver accidents dogged the conservative House Judiciary Committee, which, with a membership majority of lawyers, had been expected to resist the package. The result is new laws lowering intoxication standards and toughening penalties for drunken driving.

Lawyer legislators were largely credited, however with killing another measure that would have changed the way fees are determined in the handling of estates, potentially lowering them.

The Maryland Bankers Association successfully lobbied to death most measures that would have placed lending institution under more stringent state control and also saw enacted its single legislative priority, a bill enabling banks to charge higher fees for administratering trusts of $250,000 or more.

Other losers include the state's 65,000 employes, who received no pay increase despite late-session efforts by Hughes to gain them a $500 across-the-board raise.

Organized labor's efforts to force contractors on all public works projects receiving state funds to pay the "prevailing wage" ran into a fatal fibuster. Western Maryland apple growers, meanwhile, won a battle to strip overtime wages from migrant workers, who will now have to work 60 instead of 40 hours to obtain the premium pay.

Welfare recipients also lost, as a measure to provide 10 percent annual benefit increases for the next 10 years -- to be financed by a tax on dry cleaning -- was effectively killed by stripping away the revenue-raiser and pegging any increase to available funds in the state budget.

With last year's $300 million surplus having fallen victim to a stagnant state economy, budget cuts were the order of the day. Hardest hit were those who depend on Medicaid to pay medical bills. An $11 million cut in the program is expected to result in fewer recipients receiving less money.

The very downbeat rhythm of the session left many lawmakers feeling something intangible had also been lost. "Usually, everything builds," said Del. James Lighthizer (D-Anne Arundel) of the final days. "This year, eeverything's petering out. A lot of us put in a lot of work and have very little to show for it."