THE MARYLAND General Assembly's special session is off to a bad start. It was supposed to take a crucial step toward the settlement of thousands of depositors' claims on the failed savings and loan associations. Instead, the hope of a prompt settlement seems to be fading.

Deposits are frozen in four state-insured S&Ls. Under Gov. Harry Hughes's plan, depositors in two of them had some hopes of getting access to their money within a couple of months. But the plan requires legislation, and the State Senate is balking. Perhaps some of the fault is the governor's, for failing to carry the legislative leaders along with him. Much of the fault certainly lies with Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg for his last-minute turnabout.

Sen. Steinberg undoubtedly speaks for many legislators afflicted by belated doubts and rising anxieties, but Gov. Hughes's plan requires speed. Although it has assumed legal responsibility for these deposits, the state has so far refused to pay them off. It could float a loan to give the depositors their money while the affairs of the failed S&Ls are slowly resolved. But that would require more than $1 billion, and the state understandably wants to avoid taking on that huge debt. Instead, the governor proposes to sell off, as fast as possible, two or perhaps even three of the wrecks to New York banks that want to do business in Maryland. The banks would then assume responsibility for the deposits of the S&Ls that they took over, reducing the state's liabilities to an amount that it could handle with its present limited insurance fund.

The Chase Manhattan Corp., for example, has agreed to take over Merritt Commercial Savings and Loan in a deal to which the state was to contribute $25 million. Some of the legislators object to paying that much to the bank. But the real question is whether there's a less expensive way for the state to meet its promise to Merritt's depositors. And the answer is: probably not.

The General Assembly has to accept one central reality here -- there is no cost-free or risk-free way out of this swamp. Sooner or later depositors are going to sue the state for their money. That hasn't happened yet, because this kind of litigation is expensive, uncertain and slow. But if a divided General Assembly leaves the prospect of continued paralysis, it is inevitable that some of the increasingly angry depositors will go to court. A lawsuit is not a promising way of reducing the expense to the state.

The state of Maryland has undertaken an obligation to the depositors of the failed S&Ls. It was reasonable to ask them to be patient while Gov. Hughes tried to negotiate a solution and the General Assembly went to work. But now the General Assembly has to make up its mind.