GOV. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is right: His administration's plan to sell 836acres of environmentally sensitive state land to a developer at a bargainprice - and possibly sell other such state parcels - does raise a significantpublic policy issue that ought to be explored.

But the public policy issue that must be addressed is not the one that Mr.Ehrlich identifies. Nice try, governor, but Marylanders are too smart forblatant misdirection.

In a statement last week, Mr. Ehrlich argued that the questions raised bythese possible land deals involve the efficient operation of government. "Iwill restore accountability to state agencies that purchase, manage and sellproperty with taxpayer dollars," the governor wrote.

Who disagrees? The state must be run efficiently and with fiscaldiscipline. That should include reviewing state land and perhaps even - if thecircumstances are right - selling parcels from time to time.

But for Mr. Ehrlich to define this land-gate in only those terms is asmokescreen, apparently to deflect the considerable public backlash. So is hislame effort at historical revision, his carefully couched claim that stateparks and forests "never were" for sale. You see, the 836 acres hadn't yetbeen designated a state park or forest. Got that?

If the governor wants to talk public policy, let's focus not on efficientgovernment, obviously a shared goal, but on open government with real checksand balances, pretty much ignored in this case.

Let's focus on why Mr. Ehrlich's effort to identify salable state parcelswas hidden from the public. On why his administration felt that it didn't haveto publicly justify selling environmentally sensitive land bought with scarcepreservation funds. On why politically connected developer Willard J.Hackerman had the inside track on a deal enriching him beyond its value totaxpayers. And what's with reports that the state's land consultant - formerfootball star Roger Staubach - was the drawing card at an Ehrlich fund-raiserfor developers? Come meet the guy who's deciding what state land is ripe forsale - and bring $4,000!

Now Mr. Ehrlich is complaining that Democrats are making political hay bycalling for a state constitutional amendment on the 2006 ballot - when he runsfor re-election - to bar sales of protected state land. We don't know thatsuch an amendment is absolutely necessary, but it's very clear that Marylandneeds a firm law that brings the whole process of identifying such potentialstate land sales, from start to finish, before the entire legislature forreview and approval. State bond bills are subject to such scrutiny; why notland sales?

Mr. Ehrlich has not taken responsibility for this sordid affair. Now he'ssaying "nothing could be further from the truth" than the notion that hisadministration was working toward selling some protected state land. Thatdisingenuous denial - and the many unanswered questions about what his teamwas up to - make the most compelling case for firm legislative control of suchland sales.

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