Hidden away in the First National Bank of Maryland's main branch in Baltimore is a nearly forgotten account, a passbook containing some $1 million that Maryland taxpayers voluntarily have contributed to the state since 1975.

The account was established and has been kept alive for what once was considered a worthy cause: to root out the evils of corruption that pervaded state political offices in the early 1970s. But, since its birth seven years ago, the Fair Campaign Financing Fund has existed only as a paper calculation, as dollars collected from tax returns and invested at various rates in U.S. Treasury notes and bonds and federal farm credit mortgages that to date have earned $247,000 in interest.

So far, not a penny has been spent.

Now, with candidates for state and local offices legally allowed to apply for the money as matching funds in their election campaigns this fall for the first time, state legislators are in a quandary over what to do. The nine-member Fair Campaign Financing Commission, which is supposed to parcel out the funds, has not met in three years and is in such a state of disarray that the vice-chairman has lost track of who the chairman is, or even if there is one.

The state League of Women Voters, once a major force pushing for the campaign financing law, has testified in favor of repealing it. A senior legislative official sarcastically refers to the law as "one of those trendy items of legislation that passed in the 1970s." And Willard Morris, State Administrator of Election Laws, who scorns the law, recently said of the 200,000 citizens who each added $2 in state tax payments to help fill the fund: "I can't believe there are that many idiots in this state."

Some of the law's earliest and most ardent champions in the legislature glumly admit they have lost hope of seeing public financing of campaigns in Maryland, at least in the present climate, reflecting the end of an energetic reform movement that has flickered dimly since first catching fire in an era of political cynicism that was marked by the conviction of one Maryland official after another.

Today, it seems, few people can identify with the reformist zeal of those who watched the televised Watergate hearings in 1973, learned in their daily news accounts that the state's former governor, Spiro Agnew, along with the Baltimore County executive and state's attorney, had been convicted of illegal political dealings, and responded to the revelations of graft by forming the Maryland Citizens Lobby for Clean Politics.

And few remember the State of the State address delivered by then-governor Marvin Mandel in the election year of 1974, when campaign reform had the legislative appeal that tough crime bills do this year.

"I am convinced that cash is the contemporary evil in campaigns," Mandel proclaimed, concealing his personal distaste for the campaign financing bill that was threatening his near-total control of political contributions in the state (Mandel's Four Star Salute fund-raiser, held15 months before the 1974 election, collected $1 million. "We dried up everything," one former aide recalled recently.

"And anyone who has followed the horrors of Watergate, its bulging briefcases, its hidden vaults, its blank checks, its million-dollar cover-ups, its illegal corporate cash contributions, its stash-and-skim, cash-and-carry operations, cannot dispute this view," added Mandel, who subsequently was himself convicted of political corruption before his term expired."

It was in this climate that the public campaign financing law in Maryland was conceived, and that legislators, deafened by the public outcry for it, acquiesced in passing it.

But even in 1974 there were signs that legislative support for the law was weak in some important quarters, notably in the figures of two hard-nosed Baltimore delegates, Paul Weisengoff and Charles Krysiak, since it ran counter to Maryland's oldest political traditions.

"The bill got through because the times were right and people said, 'Hell, let it pass, it will never work anyway,'" explained Frank A. DeFilippo, a political consultant who was Mandel's chief of staff. "Marvin didn't like it, but he went along with it because of the times."

Even the ceremonial signing of the bill reflected Mandel's dislike of electoral reform. He pretended to forget to sign it, several State House observers recall, and had to be called back to the signing room where ink and pen duly were provided.

Weisengoff objected to the bill, he says, not because he is against cleaning up government ("No one is against that"), but because he opposes "calling something reform that would make the system worse than it is now."

"I'm also philsophically opposed because I don't want to contribute to all candidates," he adds.

Just to make sure that the law never succeeded, Weisengoff and Krysiak (who says "corruption is in a person's heart" and cannot be weeded out through legislation) worked the House floor in the best Baltimorean style, forcing two critical changes in the bill. One change made the contributions a $2 "add-on" to an individual's tax return, instead of the more common checkoff system used by the federal government for presidential elections, which allows a taxpayer to decide whether to designate some of his or her tax money for the campaign fund. The other amendment prohibited using money from the fund for primary elections.

"The bill was amended on the floor to cripple it," says House Majority Leader Donald Robertson (D-Montgomery) who, with Del. Helen Koss (D-Montgomery), tried vigorously for five years afterward to make the bill more workable. "It was done in a very unpolished way. If you read the bill now, you won't know what it means."

Koss and Robertson's efforts to change the law, to render it effective for the 1978 election by limiting the number of offices that would be financed with the money, proved futile. Citizens' groups who had pressured for it became, in the words of one supporter, "burned out." Then the Supreme Court ruled that candidates who did not accept public funds could spend all the money they could raise, a decision that some believe was the "crowning blow." Even the 1976 presidential campaign failed to spark an interest in public financing, as its supporters had hoped.

At the peak of the legislation's support in 1975, only 3.2 percent of Maryland's taxpayers volunteered an extra $2 in tax payments to fill the fund. From $153,000 contributed on tax returns that year, donations steadily slipped, down to $100,000 last year, a citizen participation rate of 2.4 percent that is second lowest among the 17 states that have public campaign financing laws. Only Maine, the first state to enact such laws, has a lower rate, roughly 1 percent, having collected a total of $3,500 since 1973 which, as in the case of Maryland, has never been spent.

Beyond these factors, Weisengoff, although not the chairman, controlled the House Ways and Means Committee and his ally, Krysiak, chaired the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, the two bodies that voted first on campaign financing bills.

"It was always within one vote in my committee," recalls Krysiak, whose panel once killed 14 election-reform measures in 30 minutes. "But if I lost it I knew Paul could stop it in Ways and Means."

At one point, as Koss and Robertson lavished their time on draft after draft of new proposals, they tried to enlist Weisengoff's help, meeting him at the Colony Seven Motel midway between their home base of Montgomery County and his turf in Baltimore.

"We felt it would be better to have him at least quiet and not working against the bill," Koss says. "We kept providing him with drafts. But then he got less interested and after that we lost all efforts to get it out of the House."

Only once did a campaign reform measure have a chance of making it to the House floor for a vote. But in that instance, Weisengoff presented then-House Ways and Means Committee chairman Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), who favored public financing, with a petition signed by 74 delegates who said they would vote against the measure. Weisengoff's tactic persuaded Cardin not to send the bill to the floor.

All that could be agreed upon was a measure to postpone the public financing of campaigns until this year.

Now, supporters harken back nostalgically to the days when reform was a hot issue. They wonder aloud whether it was the overly ambitious nature of the bill that doomed it, or its out-of-place "clean government" label. They remember the irony of hearing legislative leaders say they supported the bill because it would enable less well-known, good-government types, like then-transportation secretary Harry Hughes--now Maryland's governor--who had no access to Mandel's financial machine, get elected to higher state offices.

And they remember their own idealistic hopes of changing a system whose bedrock was the political wards and clubs of Baltimore, where "walk-around" money paid to campaign workers was as common as the corner store.

"Walk-around money was something just unbelievable to me," Koss recalls. "I came from Montgomery County, where you had a great cadre of volunteer workers."

Finally, last year they began to give up hope, acknowledging that the blossom of reform in Maryland had withered on the vine. This year's tight economic outlook appeared to seal the law's fate. Most supporters agreed that it would require an additional $3 million to make the campaign fund work properly if it were allowed to take effect this year.

"For six years we held them opponents of public financing off, hoping for some momentum," Cardin, now House Speaker, said last week. "It's just not there. The interest just ended. It's unfortunate."

Even so, the campaign financing law's tortured and protracted history is not entirely over. It continues to live on in this legislative session, like a wounded soldier, waiting for either the miracle cure or for someone to pull the plug.

The House of Delegates, including Koss and Robertson, recently voted 102-to-19 to repeal the law and spend the funds on voter education. But the Senate, led by Sen. Edward Conroy (D-Prince George's), is considering a measure that would enable the state to continue to collect the money until 1986 when, the bill's sponsors say, the mood again will be right for public financing.

Complicating the issue is Common Cause, an outspoken advocacy group that has supported the law since its inception and has threatened to sue the state if the money is not used for candidates' campaigns.

"At this point it's not a philosophical issue, it's a question of legal bind," says Diana Vincent, executive director of Maryland Common Cause. "Our belief is that earmarked money held in trust by the state can't be put in a general fund and used for a different project."

Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs disagrees. An opinion he drafted on the subject last year stated that the money can be used for purposes "similar" to those intended in the law.

The old true believers, such as Koss and Robertson, have come up with their own rationale for throwing in the towel. They say they still are optimistic that a tough public campaigning financing law will be approved in the future.

"You can't look at your time down here in terms of bills passed," Koss says philosophically. "Now there is a vehicle there that people can look at to go back to. We won't be here when it passes. But it gives a longer continuum. It's a contribution."