In the eyes of Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), it was a matter of simple justice: the 175,000 Cubans and Haitians who landed in Florida's lap in 1981 and 1982 were the federal government's responsibility, and it owed the state the same $31 million in compensatory aid in fiscal 1983 that it had paid the year before.

But other states--notably Texas and California--were also paying unexpected bills for services to refugees fleeing war, revolution and hard times in southeast Asia, Central America and elsewhere. They, too, wanted help from the Health and Human Services Department's Refugee Resettlement Office.

By the time the House-Senate conference committee was finished with the fiscal 1983 continuing resolution last December, the Reagan administration's proposed $20 million in "targeted assistance" had grown to $70 million. Florida, which would have received nothing under the administration's plan, was guaranteed something. But it wasn't clear how much.

Depending on which allocation formula was used, Florida would get the $31 million it had received before, and Texas and California much less than they had expected, or Florida would get only $18.9 million, but there would be more money to spread around to other states.

But on that crucial question, the conference report--the only public record of the deliberations--was "overtly and clearly silent," said Michael A. Stephens, of the House Appropriations Committee staff. So it was up to HHS to interpret the sound of congressional silence.

"We'd rather have specific direction," said Anthony Itteilag, deputy assistant secretary of HHS for budget. "Without it, we get caught in the cross fire."

In this case, Chiles was manning the heavy artillery. The conference committee, he said, "implicitly" intended that Florida should get the same $31 million it had before. He made the point during congressional hearings in April, when Phillip Hawkes, head of the refugee office, was testifying.

As Ron Fried, Florida legislative liaison in Washington, put it yesterday, "Sen. Chiles was largely responsible for the original $20 million being raised to $70 million . . . . His reason for doing that would not necessarily be that California should get most of the money."

But staffers who had attended the closed session of the conference committee told HHS a different story. As Itteilag tells it: "We went to the House first, because they tend to be more alert to the nuances of things like this. Then we went to the Senate. They said, 'Whatever the House told you is okay.' "

Itteilag said the consensus was that Chiles had failed to get the conference to adopt a formula that would give $31 million to Florida and divide the remaining $39 million among the 49 other states, the District of Columbia and Guam. So when Chiles chided HHS's Hawkes at the spring hearing, saying an agreement had been worked out to divide money according to that formula, Hawkes said he could find no record of it.

The Florida delegation then wrote incoming HHS Secretary Margaret M. Heckler saying, "We were shocked to learn that HHS wants to cut Cuban/Haitian targeted assistance down to $19 million. We believe this is unjust and ignores the burden borne by the people of Florida . . . . "

HHS staffers checked back with their Hill contacts, and decided Chiles and the Florida delegation were seeing "implicit" agreements where none existed. In the Federal Register of June 3, they gave the Floridians the department's verdict, proposing allocation formulas that gave Florida $18.9 million, and California more than $22 million.

However, the original congressional allocation had set aside $5 million for schools in the Miami area, and, according to lobbyist Fried, HHS several weeks ago agreed that $6.5 million in aid originally earmarked for Soviet refugees would be "reprogrammed," or transferred, to Florida.