The celebration of economic good fortune that greeted Maryland lawmakers as they embarked on the 90-day General Assembly this week was not a source of giddy excitement for everyone.

For the legislature's small band of Republicans, the spending spree, as many of them are calling it, will be just another reminder of their place on the margins of power.

Perennially out of favor, dwindling in number, members of Maryland's minority party have been gearing up for another session in which every victory will be hard-fought and the real struggle will be proving they matter. Their status is far different than that enjoyed by their GOP mates in Virginia, who control the governor's mansion and both houses of the General Assembly.

"We're not running the state," was House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman's (R-Howard) blunt assessment. "When the Democrats are united, we're irrelevant. When the Democrats are split, then we can get involved and decide the issue."

Last year, Republicans showed they could play the spoiler, working with conservative Democrats to bottle up Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal for a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes, and filibustering until they reached a compromise that sliced the tax by two-thirds.

This year, party leaders are promising a tough fight on taxes, seizing on the contrast between Glendening's plans for the state's historic $925 million surplus and Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III's intentions for his state's windfall.

"In Virginia, they're talking about giving it back to the taxpayers," said U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a former state delegate who came to Annapolis this week to fire up the party before the bang of the opening gavel. "Here, we've got Glendening talking about spending most of a billion dollars."

But cheerleading will not be enough to deliver a successful session for the GOP. Political victories in Annapolis boil down to sheer numbers, and the Republicans haven't got them.

In the 1998 election, Republicans dropped six seats in the House of Delegates, holding on to 35 of the 141 seats. Last year, they lost Anne Arundel Sen. Robert R. Neall to the Democrats, leaving them with just 14 of 47 senate seats.

James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said the party has "struggled in search of a message."

"The Maryland electorate is generally to the political left, while the national Republican Party has moved in the opposite direction, which basically means that the local party has been stranded."

The booming economy has not helped, he said. Last week, Glendening (D) boasted that Maryland is "in a better financial shape than we have probably ever seen." This year Democrats are expected to offer tax-cut proposals, including the elimination of the state's inheritance tax and acceleration of Glendening's incremental, 10 percent income tax cut.

But Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden (R-Howard) said his party is ready to play spoiler if the opportunity presents itself, and he reeled off a list of issues he thought the GOP could seize on this year.

The foremost of those, of course, is taxes. Madden called the $1 billion surplus "an embarrassment of riches," and said the Democratic tax-cut proposals don't go nearly far enough.

There are other issues. They include the hotly contested fight over the intercounty connector, which many Republicans want to see built, despite concerns from Glendening, who opposes it.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard), the House minority whip, said he wants the GOP to back legislation preventing Montgomery County officials from selling land where the road could go, in hopes of preserving the option to build it.

Republicans also intend to battle the governor over his plan to bring collective bargaining to university employees. And they will fight a proposal that would require counties to pay prevailing wages to school construction workers, something Madden said would cut deeply into funds for textbooks and instruction.

"We've got a lot to work with," Madden said.