WHILE THEIR COUNTERPARTS in Richmond watch a new governor for signals, Maryland's state legislators will be watching for new signals from a governor they've already had for three years. Merely seeing Harry Hughes at all may be an experience for the lawmakers this year, given his ability to vanish into the State House woodwork in the heat of previous legislative controversies. But it's different now: elections are in the offing--along with an unusually heavy plate of legislative issues for an "on-year"--and Mr. Hughes says Marylanders can expect to see a decisive governor. Who knows, he might even push through a gas-tax increase and other measures that he should have demanded long ago.

As in Richmond, redistricting and its wake may set the intramural mood in Annapolis, affecting coalitions, vendettas and other paybacks during legislative deliberations. And though the pinch of austerity may be relatively less severe in Maryland this year than in Virginia, it won't be caviar time in Annapolis; here, too, changes in the gasoline tax are critical if there is to be enough money to fix roads and bridges and to finance mass transit.

Crime will be front and center, leading the list of voter concerns this year and providing a dandy topic for campaign time--witness the one and only charge being led by Gov. Hughes already. The trick may be for him to stay in charge of the charge, instead of being run over by a herd of hang-the-cost-and-all-offenders-too lawmakers bent on outdoing each other. Mr. Hughes is talking tough but sensibly--about stiffer penalties for illegal handgun use, a tougher approach to juvenile crime, more prison space, a crackdown on drug pushers and harsher treatment of those involved in acts of violence linked to racial or religious persecution.

This is not the routine stuff of which most campaign-year sessions are made. Budget cuts, crime, drunken driving, transportation and interest rates are dead-serious subjects around the state--and how they are addressed or neglected will surely be assessed at the polls.