PINEHURST, N.C., DEC. 11 -- Maine Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. walked around the Republican Governors' Association meeting that ended here today carrying a roll of faxed pages that should have been printed in red ink.

In hard numbers, the papers detailed how his agency heads in Augusta plan to follow his instructions to lop 15 percent off their budgets by the end of the year. McKernan, who was narrowly reelected in November as the state's economic slide began to hit home, is not alone.

The National Association of State Budget Officers estimates that at least 30 governors will have potential deficits to make up before the end of the fiscal year, a grim statistic that reflects the rising expenditures and sliding revenue that are a byproduct of the national economic downturn.

McKernan said he must slice $110 million out of the $750 million that remains of Maine's $1.6 billion budget or the state will never make it to the end of the fiscal year ending June 30.

"We have to come to zero," he said. "We can't afford to be minus one {dollar}."

McKernan's wife, Rep. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), stood nearby and commiserated with him over their state's fiscal woes. Forty-nine states are forced by state law to balance their budgets every year.

"Being married to a governor makes you realize the choices that we don't have to make," she said of Congress, which fights over how big a deficit to run rather than how to avoid one.

"The problem in Washington is a human nature problem," said McKernan, who like other state leaders is unhappy about new federal mandates that cost the states even more. "If you don't have to make the tough choices in life, you don't make them."

The tight times are not new for some, but the fiscal noose that forced governors like New Jersey's James J. Florio (D) to incur the wrath of voters by raising taxes last year is tightening in states nationwide.

Marcia Howard, an analyst for the budget officers' group, said it is too soon to offer final numbers on how many states will be battling red ink this year. "Almost every day, we hear about another state that is in that boat," she said. "For governors, it's a particular challenge when they have to hit the ground running."

At the Republican governors' meeting here, budget woes were the No. 1 topic among the chief executives as they golfed, socialized and compared notes.

For newcomers like Michigan Gov.-elect John Engler (R) and Illinois Gov.-elect Jim Edgar (R), the process of bringing their state budgets under control has already begun, a month before they formally take office.

Edgar covered his bases during the campaign by warning voters that he would keep a temporary income tax surcharge first imposed by Gov. James R. Thompson (R) in place indefinitely. And Engler, who as president of the Michigan Senate could be held partly accountable for a $1 billion deficit he will face when Democrat James J. Blanchard turns over the reins, was nonetheless cheered last week when the state legislature agreed to a 9 percent across-the-board spending reduction.

"We've simply got to manage the state a lot better," Engler said.

The matter of how best to manage budgets and taxes is "volatile," said Edgar, especially when property taxes are involved.

Edgar aide Mike Lawrence said it has come as little surprise that a tough budget year was coming. "It's not like we were going to run into a rosy fiscal situation and suddenly found the thorns," he said. "We knew the thorns were there and we said so."

"People want honesty in that," Edgar said in an interview. "They're not going to buy demagoguery."

Edgar's assertion meshes with the political assessment the governors were offered today by Republican pollsters Richard Wirthlin and Neil Newhouse, who warned that Republicans "dodged a bullet" in the recent midterm elections.

"Budgetary expenditures and taxes are a major issue," said Wirthlin, who was President Ronald Reagan's chief pulse-taker. "The simple fact is that there's no place for a governor to hide." State lawmakers are held more accountable, Wirthlin said, because they are more visible.

New England states as well as New York, Connecticut and New Jersey were the first victims of the economic downturn. New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) has proposed $1 billion in spending reductions to close a budget gap. Although most states were spending more than they took in during the 1990 fiscal year, many have been cushioned from running deficits or raising taxes by the accumulated balances or rainy-day funds they built up in better years.

This year, however, states such as North Carolina, which is suffering an $850 million shortfall, and California, which is facing a current-year shortfall and a potential $4.3 billion gap next fiscal year, have joined the ranks of those with strained budgets. In Ohio, outgoing Gov. Richard F. Celeste (D) has already predicted that his Republican successor, George V. Voinovich, is going to have to raise taxes. Minnesota budget analysts also have predicted a $1 billion shortfall for Gov.-elect Arne Carlson (R).

Oregon, which is still relatively fiscally healthy, was suddenly presented with costly new challenge last month when voters approved a tax-limiting referendum that requires the state to make up an estimated $633 million in revenue earmarked for education. Oregon Gov.-elect Barbara Roberts (D), who must prepare a budget by Feb. 1, has asked state agencies to consider making targeted 10 percent cuts in their budgets.

"We've come to judgment day," said Michelle Davis, executive director of the GOP governors' group. "The first thing we're going to have to do is sit down with very sharp pencils and do significant cutting."

She said she is advising governors-elect to "enjoy the inaugural, because there's not going to be much fun afterward."