RIDING the 1990s wave of public disgust with politics-as-usual, Americans in 24 states will do more than pull the lever for their chosen candidates Tuesday. They'll give thumbs up or down to 144 ballot initiatives designed to give ordinary people a way to create laws their own state legislators haven't or won't.
Big themes this year: term limits, tax revolts, gambling, crime, immigration.
``From Washington to their own backyards, common citizens want to get government off their backs,'' says Peter Roff of Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. ``So they're flexing the tools they have to put themselves in the driver's seat.''
Adding to 16 states that have already limited terms in office for legislators, eight more will consider the ``throw-the-bums-out'' theme of recent years. States voting on congressional term limits in 1994: Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, and Utah.
Gambling questions are also on the ballot in eight states. They underline growing public concern for alternatives to taxes as a way to boost revenues for schools, welfare, and other services from parks and libraries to garbage collection.
``States are starved for revenue and legalized casinos provide a convenient source without using the `T' [for taxation] word,'' says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
Among the states to watch are Arkansas, where citizens will vote on creating casinos at racetracks, and Missouri, which is considering riverboat gambling.
Tax-limit measures are on the ballot in five states - Florida, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, and Nevada. The measures would allow citizens to seize control of revenue raising by demanding that voters or legislative super-majorities approve tax increases. Observers say the growth of such measures is following the same pattern as term limits.
``Colorado approved term limits in 1990 and the idea spread like wildfire,'' says Scott Mackey of the National Conference of State Legislators. ``Now others are taking the cue from Colorado's 1992 mandate of voter approval for tax increases.''
On the hot issues of health care, crime, and immigration, organizers of initiatives in other states are turning to California for clues on which measures have the strongest support. Backers of many of the key ballot measures say a large part of their motive is to send messages to federal and state lawmakers to wake up.
``We have been watching the [California] legislature for over five years, and each year dozens of new bills dealing with illegal aliens are put before committees and are killed,'' says Ron Prince, chairman of Citizens for Legal Immigration Reform. ``The state can no longer afford to wait.''
Enter Proposition 187, barring illegal immigrants from using government-funded hospitals or schools. The measure drew a record number of signatures from every county and has eclipsed both the state gubernatorial and senate races in voter interest. It has emerged as one of the most important political fights of 1994.
Heavily favored, the measure faces a protracted court test if passed, but could fuel a major push for immigration reform at the federal level.
``Proposition 187 is a classic message initiative,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif. ``Even supporters acknowledge its dubious constitutionality.''
National interests are also watching two health-related measures that could become models in other states if successful. California's Proposition 186 would create a Canadian-style, single-payer health-care system (funded by a new payroll tax and a new income tax surcharge). And Phillip Morris-backed Proposition 188 would replace local antismoking laws with a looser statewide standard.
California's Proposition 184, putting third-time felons in prison for life, is also being watched closely by other states. Gov. Pete Wilson already signed one of the nation's toughest ``three-strikes-and-you're-out'' provisions into law in May. But if the initiative is approved as well, the provision will become nearly impossible to weaken.
Also awaiting voters Tuesday:
* Victims' rights: 14 states already have such laws, ensuring crime victims can take part in prosecuting their assailants. Seven more may join them (Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Maryland, Nebraska, Ohio, and Utah).
* Anti-gay rights: Initiatives were launched in 10 states but made it to the ballot only in Idaho and Oregon.
* Campaign finance reform: Laws creating new limits on raising and spending are on the ballot in Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon.