FROM New York City to Washington State, voters next week will pass judgment on a passel of populist political reforms.
In the six states that are voting on ballot initiatives on Nov. 2, four key themes have emerged: taxes, term limits, gay rights, and school choice. Though these issues have been hardy perennials in the political garden for a decade or more, they are being pushed with even greater passion this year. The reason: Voters are disgusted with politics-as-usual.
``Americans are very upset with the status quo,'' says Alan Philp, director of research for Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. ``They haven't seen the change they were promised by Bush, Perot, and Clinton so they are turning more and more to the initiative process as a way around politicians.''
At the state level, the most-watched initiatives are in Washington and California.
The Golden State's tightly contested Proposition 174 would offer vouchers to parents to send children to private or parochial schools. With education reform a hot issue in nearly every state, the eyes of the nation are on Prop. 174.
But recent polls show that the measure is withering under a $6 million assault by opponents. Californians have become concerned that, as opponents charge, 174 will harm public schools and may channel public funds to off-the-wall educational institutions. A statewide poll conducted last week showed the proposal trailing among registered voters, 59 percent to 26 percent.
In another closely watched California initiative battle, the state may buck a national trend by approving a half-cent sales tax increase to help finance local government. But voters appear likely to defeat a measure that would dilute part of 1978's groundbreaking Proposition 13, which limited property-tax hikes.
WASHINGTON is also busy on the tax front. Business and conservative groups there are backing two initiatives that would limit the state's ability to raise taxes. Initiative 601 would link spending increases to the rate of inflation and population growth. Initiative 602 would mandate that state revenues grow no faster than the state economy. This measure would also roll back $1 billion in tax and fee hikes passed earlier this year.
Twenty-one states already have some tax or spending cap in place, most passed in the 1978-81 period. And mandates for a ``super-majority'' to pass new taxes, as the Washington initiatives would require, have gained momentum with Connecticut, Colorado, and Rhode Island passing measures last year.
University of Washington political scientist David Olson worries that the initiatives' requirements for a legislative ``super- majority'' on new taxes is ``antidemocratic.''
But backers of the Washington initiatives say they are needed to rein in runaway state spending. The nonpartisan Washington Research Council puts the issue in perspective, concluding the initiatives are ``neither silver bullet nor meat axe.''
Washington State voters will also consider a so-called ``three strikes and you're out'' initiative that would require permanent imprisonment for criminals convicted of a third violent offense. Dr. Olsen says the Persistent Offenders Accountability Act will win in a landslide.
While backers say the measure addresses rising crime, opponents charge the initiative lumps too many categories of crime together -
from first-degree murder to second-degree assault - and keeps judges from exercising discretion in sentencing.
Besides the state initiatives, a number of municipal ballot measures are receiving national attention. Foremost among these is a New York City measure that would limit the terms of the mayor, council members, and borough presidents to two four-year terms.
The measure, sponsored by cosmetics tycoon Ronald Lauder, survived a stiff court challenge to land on the ballot just weeks before the election. Now polls show that most voters are ready to approve term limits.
``The city is out of control on spending and deterioration of services,'' says John Buttrazzi, executive director of New Yorkers for Term Limits. ``People are tired of incumbents and want fresh ideas.''
Gay rights are another major theme this year. Cincinnati's Issue 3 and Lewiston, Maine's ``Ordinance Prohibiting Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation'' would roll back laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals in employment and housing.
``This has become an issue because people want to make sure the city is seen not as pro-gay, but rather antidiscrimination,'' says Brian Robitaille of the Lewiston Sun-Journal.