HAD IT HAPPENED in the District of Columbia, you would have heard bellows of outrage and I-told-you-so's from the Capitol to the suburbs:

A food program for low-income women and children --which began dropping 6,300 women and children earlier this year because of what was said to be a lack of money--has returned $240,000 in federal money that had been earmarked for the program. In addition, according to a report yesterday by staff writer Margaret Engel, the same officials also returned $1 million last year of $15 million received from the federal government. Why? Not enough clerks, they said. But then, what's the difference, when still other officials are acknowledging that a computer system foul-up has meant a miscount by as much as 5,000 of the number of eligible people receiving help as reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture?

No, this isn't your good old District Building bungle; this is the state of Maryland, and the mess is as terrible as the excuses for it are flimsy. The program in question is an important one: the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, operated by the state health department. "We cannot see the people quickly enough to get them certifed," says the coordinator, Steve Trageser. Besides, concede other state officials, those computer counts have been "off for eight years." In fact, the count has mixed those people eligible with those actually receiving food help--for a bloated "participation" total.

So there you have it: Maryland has little or no idea how well its program is reaching those who need it; doesn't have money to fix the mess; is sending other money back that it can't use; and is sending away the very people who are desperate for, and entitled to, that money.

There's no justification for it. Gov. Hughes should find the heads that should roll, get the computers squared away and see to it that every possible dollar is spent the way it should be, for those who need it.