For reasons too numerous to contemplate -- not the least of which was the onset of a major recession -- 1981 was the kind of year most would just as soon forget. No wonder, then, that the prizewinners of the Small Business Foundation of America's third annual editorial cartoon contest found not even an iota of ERTA to celebrate on paper. And this despite the stated desire of the foundation -- a nonpartisan Waltham, Mass., organization devoted to research and public information -- to portray the joys as well as the frustrations of small business.

If the consensus of the cartoonists who entered this year's contest (with work published in 1981) is any measure, the most frustrating element in today's small business climate is soaring interest rates. To the 45 contestants, an unconscionably high prime was as sinister a force as the blackest character out of comic books. The bulk of their entries, reports Leslie P. Hitch, the SBFA's executive director, illustrated representations of interest rates that variously were "sinking, killing, and torturing" small business.

Nonetheless, 4 of the 10 winning drawings explored different, if equally unhappy, themes. The whole dismal scene -- if indeed last year is to be judged a fiscal fizzle -- is perhaps best summed up by repeat winner (along with Dan Adams and Dick Wright) Bill DeOre's unpalatable red-white-and-blue-plate special of three fish heads served to small business by a sleazy Uncle Sam.

The panel of five businesspeople culled from the rolls of the SBFA had trouble deciding which of Milt Priggee's two treatments of taxes warranted top honors in the nondaily category. The jury was deadlocked initially, says Hitch, but finally awarded first place to the wretch on the rack because "the subject was broader." That may be stretching a point (and there was no reason to: inheritance taxes were, in fact, liberalized under the 1981 tax laws), but they had no such difficulty with first prize from a daily newspaper, "instantaneously and unanimously" selecting Jerry Fearing's slow death by hanging -- the only drawing in the top 10 to identify some of the perpetrators of small-business woes.

The two first-place winners got a closer look at the Establishment when they were flown to Washington in May by the SBFA to receive their awards. But whether they and their fellow artists found cause there to rejoice, only next year's batch of cartoons will tell. Congratulations to all.

First Prize Daily

Jerry Fearing, St. Paul (Minn.) Dispatch

First Prize Weekly

Milt Priggee, Crain's Chicago Business

Second Prize Daily

Chan Lowe, Oklahoma City (Okla.) Times

Second Prize Weekly

Milt Priggee, Crain's Chicago Business

Honorable Mentions Daily

Timothy Atseff, Syracuse (N.Y.)/Herald-American; Bill DeOre, Dallas Morning News; Dick Wright, Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin

Honorable Mentions Weekly

Dan Adams, Hillsboro (Oreg.) Argus; Paul Fell, Syracuse (Nebr.) Journal-Democrat; Keith Poletiek, Your Heritage News (Garden Grove, Calif.).