With the savings and loan crisis still casting major shadows, the Maryland General Assembly that convenes today faces an unusually important agenda. Adding to the normal drama -- and uncertainty -- of an election-year session, this will be the swan song for two major figures who have shaped state government for the past seven years.

Gov. Harry Hughes is nearing completion of the two terms allowed by the Maryland Constitution and is testing the waters for a campaign for the U.S. Senate. He needs a strong and successful session -- and a prompt and favorable termination of the S&L problem -- to revive his chances to succeed retiring Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, a dominant force in the legislature, is leaving after this session to seek the U.S. House seat now held by the vacating Barbara Mikulski. His announced departure has observers speculating whether he will be able to maintain his consensus style of control and whether the race to succeed him as speaker will weaken that consensus or otherwise affect critical policy decisions.

Continuity will be provided by Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg, a popular and forceful leader of that often unruly body. Whether stability also will be provided by Steinberg is another question. His dashes and darts through the years -- most recently during the Chase Manhattan special session in October -- have left some wondering whether his actions are simply a necessary effort to maintain control by responding to his members or whether they reflect his own sometimes mercurial temperament.

Leadership, continuity and stability -- and much more -- will be required this year. The S&L crisis has pervaded the governmental atmosphere for eight months and will dominate discussion until it is resolved. Other major issues, such as the state budget, will be deeply affected by these decisions.

Although much progress has been made since May and the crisis now has been reduced to three major associations -- Old Court, First Maryland and Community -- more than $1 billion in deposits is tied up in those three; and the potential state liability, based upon the state's guarantee of deposits during its first special session in May, is substantial. The governor is continuing his efforts to find purchasers for those associations in order to limit further the ultimate state liability. Nevertheless, it is clear that a large fund -- most think in excess of $50 million -- must be set aside in the budget to cover the potential loss.

Maryland is in sound fiscal condition, and revenue estimates have been promising. But there will be relatively little money to apply to such pressing concerns as affordable housing for the poor, education, women's programs and the homeless. Most of the "discretionary" additional revenues are likely to be consumed by the S&L fund demanded by the bond rating house to preserve Maryland's AAA rating, a modest pay raise for state employees and an urgently needed increase in welfare payments. Present expectations are that perhaps $30 to $40 million will be available to improve existing social programs and for new initiatives -- not a large amount.

The impact of the S&L crisis goes beyond money. The report of the special counsel, an office created at the May special session to investigate the reasons for the crisis, is due this week. That report, focusing on the actions and inactions of both the government and the industry, certainly will propose major changes to tighten regulation of all savings and loan associations. It also may suggest or confirm the need for more state regulation in other areas, such as liability insurance. Major changes in the tort liability system certainly will be considered before adjournment in April.

Major attention will be given to the protection of the Chesapeake Bay by limiting development; to a proposal for a state sports authority and a new stadium in the Baltimore area; to changes in workers' compensation laws to reduce the cost to business; and to construction of schools and prisons.

The plate is a full one.