Leading Democrats agreed yesterday to probe the firing practices of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, promising a balanced look at whether the rights of state workers have been violated.

The investigation -- the first of its kind by the General Assembly in three decades -- was announced jointly by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch and comes at a time of bitterly divided government in Annapolis.

"It's not going to be a witch hunt, but it is designed to make sure that future generations of state employees . . . don't have to face the same expectation of termination," said Miller (D-Calvert).

The formal launch of the probe, first mentioned in February, drew sharp complaints from Republicans. They said the probe appeared designed to embarrass Ehrlich (R) and questioned whether the legislature is capable of conducting it.

Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset) characterized the effort as "absolutely a witch hunt," adding: "We aren't equipped to do this, no question."

Miller said a 12-member committee, of House and Senate members from both parties, would meet in coming months to define the scope of the probe and to deal with such issues as whether to hire additional staff and seek subpoena power.

Miller said the investigation, likely to begin in earnest in the fall, would examine the actions of several Ehrlich aides whom Democrats have accused of unfairly targeting state employees for dismissal.

"These issues are not small," he said, ticking off a half-dozen agencies in which employees have complained about being removed to clear the way for new hires by the Republican administration.

Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said the investigation also would examine issues related to the stability of the state workforce when the governor's office changes parties.