THE PROPOSAL to bring thousands of high-tech video slot machines to Maryland is no longer chiefly about the (dubious) mountains of cash they would channel to the state's public schools or the (doubtful) salvation they would represent for the state's horse-racing industry. Rather, the main contest here is whether it is the Democrats or the Republicans who are more adept at using slots as a stick with which to bludgeon the other. Slots have become the subject of Maryland's favorite blame game, with the pro-slots Republican governor and the anti-slots Democratic speaker of the House of Delegates making intricate moves designed mainly to cast each other as the obstructionist villain in a political theater of the absurd.

The climax of this comic opera -- or rather, the latest climax -- occurred Wednesday night when the outlines of a grand bargain to put the questions of slots before the voters in a statewide referendum exploded in the faces of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), the apparent intermediary who was pushing the deal hardest of all. Mr. Ehrlich, who never much liked the idea of a referendum, which he might lose, insisted on an up-or-down ballot question asking voters to approve the slots bill he has already embraced, which leaves many details to be ironed out later. Mr. Busch polled his Democratic caucus, ran into broad opposition from Baltimore and Prince George's County lawmakers as to the eventual venues of slots in those jurisdictions, and said the ballot question would have to be detailed -- and open to negotiation with the governor. Each refused the other's game plan, each said the other had failed to deliver his promised votes, and that was that: For the umpteenth time, slots in Maryland was a dead letter -- at least for now.

Mr. Ehrlich has made slots the lackluster legislative centerpiece of his nearly two years in office. But lawmakers in both parties wonder which the governor really wants more: a deal on slots or continuing deadlock, which divides the Democrats and allows him to hold them responsible for the state's looming budget deficits and severe budget cuts. It would be a damning comment on his leadership if he allowed or encouraged argument and impasse over slots to dominate the 2005 session of the General Assembly, as it has dominated the last two. He would be well advised to get on with the business of governing and with making the hard choices facing the state. Specifically, the governor should start to get serious by borrowing a page from Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner's playbook of fiscal common sense. That means taking a responsible approach to meeting the state's obligations by asking citizens to pay for them the old-fashioned way: with taxes.