MORE THAN halfway through a critical legislative session in Annapolis and with a huge financial hole to repair, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is alarmingly adrift. After all the campaign rhetoric and high-stakes lobbying -- and with a House hearing underway yesterday -- the governor has failed to produce the basics of his proposal to legalize slot machines to help balance the budget. No details on who would profit from slots or how much the state could expect to raise through upfront gambling-license fees and proceeds from the machines: Maryland House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County accurately termed it "a substance-free presentation." In a low attempt to cover for the failure to do homework, the governor accused House Speaker Michael E. Busch of "playing the race card" by speaking to African American ministers to enlist their help in opposing slots. On Monday, Gov. Ehrlich had called the speaker "horrible," portraying him as part of "a left-wing leadership" in the House that pushes tax increases.

Little wonder slots supporters in both parties are concerned that Gov. Ehrlich is losing credibility on the issue while talking himself into a legislative box. He has summarily announced that "it is now or never" for slot machine legislation and has vowed not bring up the issue again if it is defeated this year. He insists that his proposal -- whatever it turns out to be -- is the only feasible way to cover $395 million of the state's almost $1.3 billion projected budget shortfall while keeping commitments to education, health and other services. "The only Plan B I've seen," the governor said last week, "calls for either massive tax increases or draconian cuts, and both are unacceptable."

He should look again. Speaker Busch and a growing number of responsible lawmakers are looking at closing certain corporate tax loopholes, making perhaps $100 million in budget cuts and raising the tax on alcohol. Their plans also lack details; but it is the governor who should be laying out proposals. Even if slots were to be approved, the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services has advised against relying on revenue from them for either the coming year or for fiscal 2005 because of uncertainty about what money might be available. Still another problem: How much money would localities require in improvements to accommodate racetrack slots? Gov. Ehrlich is pushing a bad idea that ought not be rammed through this session.