AS often happens in California, the biggest political stakes this November aren't in the races for high state office. In the governor's race, for example, Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Pete Wilson are engaged in a low-octane contest for the ideological middle ground. It's in that other part of the ballot, the initiatives, where politics blasts off. The most explosive issue this year is Proposition 128. This weighty exercise in direct democracy - called ``Big Green'' by backers - would address a host of environmental problems from hazardous pesticides to greenhouse gases to clear-cutting. Proponents say that all these problems have been taken before the legislature, only to be sat on by politicians swayed by big industrial and economic interests. ``When you're defeated year after year,'' explains Assemblyman Lloyd Connelly, an author of Prop 128, ``then you're forced into the initiative process.''
That process has given environmentalists major victories in recent years, and ``Big Green'' supporters were hoping for the same. Early polls indicated that Californians, whose environmental sensitivities coexist with conservative political instincts, were lining up behind the initiative. But recent surveys show an evening out of support.
Opponents of the measure have only just begun their pre-election media blitz. They ridicule the vast reach of the proposition - its one-fell-swoop approach to environmental adjustment. They charge the initiative would undercut the state's economic competitiveness by hurting crucial industries like agriculture, oil, wood products, and chemicals. They see hundreds of billions of dollars in direct costs to government. And they portray onetime student radical and now Assemblyman Tom Hayden as the moving force behind 128.
Those charges overreach. Mr. Hayden is certainly a prime backer of ``Big Green,'' but he shares that distinction with other legislators and a phalanx of mainstream environmental organizations like the Sierra Club. The cost issue is a matter of perspective. Opponents picture the pesticide provisions as depriving farmers of access to the hundreds of chemicals useful in their business. Proponents say only 19 pesticides - those known to be carcinogenic - are targeted, and substitutes are available for all of them.
Opponents say the provision to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, including CO2, by 40 percent within 20 years would cost local governments - which would implement the cutbacks - billions. Proponents say the main purpose is to set goals for pollution reduction and move toward them. The yearly costs of the measure would be in the tens of millions, they assert, not the billions claimed by opponents.
What are Californians to make of all this? It comes down to a balancing test between the obvious, continuing need to address environmental problems and the suspicion that sprawling ballot issues like this one are not the best way to do so.