THE FINAL HOURS of the legislative session in Annapolis were mercifully lacking in the usual undignified, cynical wheeling and dealing. This was a dramatic departure from pointless tradition. In the self-adulation that followed the finale, the lawmakers' favorite word for the sum total of their work was "productive"--and that, for once at least, was also a fair statement. With negligible moments of rancor and significant respect for compromise, the members did tackle some tough issues and resolve them responsibly and in plenty of time.

To do that in an election year is all the more unusual. Not even reapportionment got in the way as consideration proceeded on a gasoline tax increase and other potentially explosive issues, including loan interest rates, the drinking age, crime bills (though nothing more to protect people from handgun traffic), prison construction, higher welfare grants and what to do about auto emissions testing stations.

So whose names now pop up first when the crawl of credits takes over the screen? Was there really a "new" Gov. Hughes in the capital, as the image- makers would have us believe? If so, he's still a chip off the old block, with only a slightly higher profile but no dazzling moves in the aisles or on the phones. For that matter, critics can (and do, and will) argue that a little more vigor a few years back might have produced a gasoline tax increase and other necessary legislative decisions a lot earlier.

The real center of power seems to have been House Speaker Benjamin Cardin, whose knowledge of government, legislative issues and the political makeup of his colleagues have earned him widespread respect. Senate President James Clark also deserves credit for weathering heat and contributing significantly to the Assembly's output.

Still, there is nothing that says a governor must wheel, deal and do legislative cartwheels to trumpet a program through the General Assembly. A low-key, constructive legislative session may be an indication of voter satisfaction or at least of no great complaints. And for many an incumbent, including the governor, this may well prove a secret of success at the polls.