IT'S A POLITICAL fact of life that partisan favorites of a governor get tapped for plum positions, unceremoniously bumping those whose allegiance to the previous occupant makes them suspect, no matter how competent they may be. In Maryland, where Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won GOP entree into the previously sacrosanct power caverns of the executive branch, Democratic lawmakers -- armed with complaints from longtime state employees claiming that they have been dumped unfairly from career-type jobs -- smelled partisan blood. They called for an investigation, and on opening day this week, the legislative effort to examine firing practices did not degenerate into a partisan food fight. The inaugural meeting to probe the Ehrlich administration's actions turned out to be surprisingly -- and properly -- civil.

Not so on Thursday, when the group met for the second time. Increasingly nervous and overly defensive Republican members of the committee pressed hard -- to no avail -- for greater say over the powers and scope of the probe. No dice: Their efforts were rebuffed by Democratic leaders, who continue to promise a fair review to include not only investigations of terminations by Mr. Ehrlich, but also by preceding Democratic administrations.

Under a draft resolution circulated at the first meeting, the panel would focus on determining whether current law provides state employees sufficient protections against "involuntary separations"; whether past and present administrations have acted fairly in dismissing employees; whether better protections are warranted; and whether the number of "serve-at-the-will" positions should be reduced.

Fair enough. At their best, these proceedings could be most constructive. Republican threats to bolt the effort don't help. A report by The Post's John Wagner says Ehrlich aides are suggesting that Democrats may use the sessions to stage a parade of disgruntled former employees, who feel unfairly terminated after long and productive government careers. Their stories may be pertinent, but the focus ought to remain on ways to protect the integrity of Maryland's work force with a system that makes productive sense and encourages valuable public servants to continue serving the state.