Several days ago, the bureaucrats who run welfare in Maryland received a thick sheaf of papers explaining what the austere, new Reagan budget requires of them. The more they read, the more their workload seemed to grow before their eyes.

They learned, for example, that they must follow Chapter II, Title 45, Section 205.10 a 4 i B of the Code of Federal Regulations, and give advance notice to each of the tens of thousands of welfare recipients whose benefits are being cut, as the Reagan budget requires.

Then they learned about Section 233.20[a][11][iii][C], explaining new restrictions on the income of welfare recipients, which state bureaucrats now must double-check monthly rather than every six months as in the past. The new restrictions will require pulling about 80,000 files over the next three months to recalculate benefits -- a task expected to cost $150,000 in overtime pay.

As they combed through the 68 pages, several officials said they began to wonder aloud about President Reagan's promise to get the federal government off the backs of the states. State officials around the country are voicing essentially the same complaint, after spending thousands of man-hours preparing for Oct. 1, when the new federal budget takes effect and the Reagan era officially begins.

Maryland officials now say that Reagan's unprecedented budget cuts have created havoc, forcing them to make hasty choices between programs based on estimates of federal aid that changed throughout the summer. The figures are again in doubt following Reagan's call on Thursday for further reductions. Even the conservative Republican who heads the National Governors Association, Vermont Gov. Richard Snelling, said this week that the cuts "have gone too far too fast," putting much of the burden for Reagan's success or failure on the backs of state and local governments.

The burden was dramatized over the last few months within Maryland's Department of Human Resources, headquarters of the old War on Poverty programs, which is slated to lose $24 million from its half-billion-dollar budget. DHR's loss accounts for half of the $50 million the whole state expects to lose as a result of the Reagan cuts.

To reach the $24 million target, DHR officials made 89 separate budget cuts in the last three months, eliminating 762 of its 7,900 authorized jobs. It was a task that mixed humanity and politics, idealism and compromise. And it took 50 staff members to get it done in time for the Oct. 1 deadline, according to DHR Deputy Secretary Geraldine Aronin, who headed what became known as the "Reagan team."

The process was at times relatively painless -- as in the cut in the $18,000 floor-cleaning contract, which means the floors in DHR's downtown Baltimore headquarters will now be scrubbed, waxed and polished only once every six months, rather than every three months.

"I remember when that contract came up," said an official present at most budget-cutting sessions. "Several of us looked at each other and said: Are you kidding? They really wax these floors four times a year? How come this place looks so bad? Let's cut it in half." And it was done.

But few other decisions came so easily. The department's executive staff includes many longtime social workers and veterans of the old War on Poverty programs -- a reflection of Maryland's liberal Democratic traditions. So the process of cutting those programs became personal for people like DHR Secretary Kalman (Buzzy) Hettleman, a former director of Baltimore's Legal Aid; for Aronin, his deputy and a social worker for more than 20 years; for state social services director Ruth Massinga, a child welfare specialist, and for many of their subordinates in the field.

Hettleman, known throughout state government as the most driven member of Gov. Harry Hughes' cabinet, called for detailed analyses of most proposed cuts. A work sheet kept by one of Aronin's aides shows that the plan for cuts went through 16 drafts in three months, three of them in the space of two working days.

"You could get so immersed in the planning process and the charts and the details of how to cut that sometimes you lost sight of what you were really doing," said Aronin. "Sometimes it would hit us all at once: My God, these are people out there. They're real people."

One of those times came in May during the executive staff's annual, two-day budget retreat at the Belmont Conference Center in Howard County, a secluded Georgian mansion owned by the Smithsonian Institute, with daily rates of $75 a person. Officials said they spent one evening in the ballroom, posing such questions as: Should services for abused children come before battered spouses? Battered spouses before the elderly?

"Last year we stayed up late playing charades and having a great time," said Ann Stockett, DHR's legislative analyst. "This year we couldn't even get up a game of hearts -- everyone was so depressed. Our assistant attorney general Joel Rabin fell asleep."

As the summer wore on, the staff engaged in heated debates over how to apportion the cuts across the department -- an issue that strained relations between social workers in the field and the executive staff. Many social workers pushed for a plan committing DHR to provide certain core services, doing away with others and using the funds for those judged most essential. But those choices were not made, and the debate ended in a compromise: all divisions of DHR would share the cuts based generally on how much federal money each received; each division would write its own plan for absorbing cuts.

"If you were in a fine state of the art, you'd have evaluations to help you make sound decisions," Aronin said, explaining DHR's position. "I don't know who has that kind of thing. Based on the clients who use our services, we know they're needed." Nonetheless, many social workers say they remain dissatisfied.

DHR had already cut almost $11.5 million by early summer, due to President Reagan's midyear executive order to phase out the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) public jobs program. That left $12.5 million of the $24 million to be chopped.

But those figures were not known until August, when Congress passed the budget, and Aronin said, it took hundreds of hours before then to figure how much aid DHR would lose and in which programs so the department could be prepared for the Oct. 1 deadline. The figures kept shifting as the budget battle moved from the White House to Congress and from one committee to another. And with most shifts came another DHR budget draft.

During the budget battle this summer, DHR staff members dashed regularly from Baltimore to Capitol Hill to hear testimony from Reagan cabinet members and to gather hints from congressional aides on which grants were to be cut how much. The proximity to Washington gave Maryland an advantage over most states, but it did little to ease the uncertainty, Aronin said. And the figures are still in doubt because of Reagan's call for further cuts and because final appropriation levels have not yet been set.

The 20 percent cut by Congress in the social services block grant meant a $9.9 million loss for DHR in federal support for day care, for services to the elderly, to abused children, to families, single mothers, the poor and more. Most of the other dollars were lost in child welfare, community services, energy, the Appalachian Regional Commission and other smaller federally funded programs.

All summer there was a proliferation of papers known around the department as "Chart Bs" -- listings of jobs and programs that were judged expendable in each division, and how much could be saved by cutting them. The entries included everything from $467 in waxers, paper cutters, drawing tables and files for the Public Information Office to $1.7 million in savings from shutting 21 state-operated day-care centers and placing the children in private centers at state expense.

The day-care plan was the most radical. Several months ago, a legislative fiscal panel called on the department to do essentially what the plan prescribes, but Hettleman and others had called the request too complex to carry out in a year. Now, faced with the need to cut $9.9 million in social services, the plan suddenly looked more feasible, officials acknowledged. And they say they can do it in the next nine months without reducing the number of day-care slots in any county.

For other social services, Massinga's staff devised a complex ranking system, protecting services for crises like child abuse, passing the budget cuts to crisis-prevention programs.

But some programs escaped the ax altogether, saved in large part by the power of their political patrons. One such project is the Baltimore Blueprint, a favorite of Mayor William Donald Schaefer. It was supposed to coordinate federal, state and local services in one inner-city Baltimore neighborhood, but, "they've had some problems producing tangible results," one official acknowledged. Nonetheless, the program held onto its $73,000 in state funds although jobs were eliminated in foster care, which is said to have a higher priority.

The summer-long talks of impending layoffs posed major morale problems. "We kept hearing conflicting rumors and stories," Washington County social worker Keith Hoffman complained recently as he drove to visit a woman who had received threatening letters from her imprisoned ex-husband. "It would be very hard to stay in the office and do office work. Everyone was rehashing things."

Meanwhile, about a dozen members of the budget-cutting team began studying state personnel laws to prepare for layoffs, and discovered that DHR could be forced to pay unemployment insurance for anyone who failed to get another job. If all 762 of the job reductions had come through layoffs, that could mean a tab as high as $2 million. "Everytime we thought we'd found a way to save money, it would cost money," one official said. The layoffs are expected to number only 200 now, since DHR already had 410 vacancies; officials say they can phase out the others through attrition.

The date, Oct. 1, became a sort of obsession for many members of the team. "When we finished our basic plan, I remember feeling some sense of relief, feeling: We did it," Aronin said. "But then I kept thinking: Look what we did! If we had put all that into building a great new society, we would be revved up . . . I keep thinking of Oct. 1. It's like Dec. 25 is Christmas, Jan. 1 is New Year's, and now there's a new date that plays on my mind. October 1st."

And what is Oct. 1? Aronin was asked.

"I guess that's the day the world ends."