Maryland's worsening budget woes have put Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on the horns of a dilemma.

The more credit she claims for playing a role in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's popular programs, the more blame she risks for Maryland's $1.7 billion budget shortfall.

But if the Democratic gubernatorial nominee denies responsibility for the state's budget mess, she throws away the eight years of experience in the State House that have been a hallmark of her campaign.

"Let me be clear what the truth is. I sat in the budget meetings. I listened to discussions and I participated in discussions," Townsend said last week. "So you're getting a person for governor who knows about the budget, who has worked on the budget. [But] the final decision is made by the governor."

The budget issue has become more significant with a new poll showing that Maryland voters' top state concern is the shortfall, the first time an issue has overtaken education.

And the poll - taken by Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc. of Annapolis - was conducted before last week's revelation that the state's two-year budget shortfall had jumped by more than $600 million.

Maryland's annual budget is about $21.7 billion this year, and last week's lowered tax collection estimates puts it about $400 million in the red. Next year's state spending is projected to be $1.1 billion more than revenue.

"She and her campaign have a decision to make about how she is going to portray her involvement with budget issues in the administration," said pollster Carol Arscott. "Was she a player or was she, as [Comptroller] William Donald Schaefer suggests, out of the loop? It's always a delicate matter for a vice president or lieutenant governor seeking to ascend to the top position."

Differing accounts

Maryland Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., are eager to blame Glendening for the shortfall but are grappling with how to portray Townsend's role - as being at fault or as being a powerless lieutenant governor.

"We're not going to allow the Townsend campaign to 'a la carte' it," Ehrlich said. "She was either there and involved, or it was as Governor Schaefer said it."

Complicating Townsend's political dilemma are conflicting accounts from her supporters about how active she has been in state budgets during the past eight years.

For weeks, Schaefer has been saying Townsend played no part in the budget, "was never consulted on it" by the governor and should be held blameless for the current woes.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. gave an almost identical description last week. "I have never heard or seen or listened to or experienced her being in the room in any budget preparation discussions," Taylor said.

But Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, says he recalls that Townsend was at the table every time legislative leaders negotiated with Glendening on the budget.

"When we've had meetings with the governor on fiscal issues on the budget, she's always there," Rawlings said.

Rawlings said that Townsend "oversees agencies that have significant budgets" and believes "she's certainly been much more involved in state fiscal policy than Ehrlich ever was."

Others say Townsend's role has fallen somewhere in between these two extremes.

"She may have had some internal influence on some of the things she was interested in, but the overall budget design was clearly the governor's design," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.