GOV. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is right: His administration's plan to sell 836 acres of environmentally sensitive state land to a developer at a bargain price - and possibly sell other such state parcels - does raise a significant public 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 for blatant misdirection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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