State Ballot Measures Tap Electorate Mood

FROM fishing limits in the Pacific to gay rights in Maine, ballot measures in several states will test the electorate's mood as it heads into 1996.

This year's prominent ballot initiatives reflect the conservative and populist agenda that marked the GOP congressional landslide in 1994. But the conservative momentum appears vulnerable on each issue.

Property rights. A referendum here in Washington would require compensation to citizens when their land is devalued by government regulation. But the so-called ''takings'' measure, already passed by the state Legislature, faces tough opposition. Indeed, it is on the ballot only because state voters wanted a chance to rescind the new law.

Term limits. Mississippi is poised to cap lawmakers' terms at the state level. Twenty-one other states already have enacted term limits through citizen votes, all since 1990. Such measures generally win by a 2-to-1 margin. Louisiana voters last month passed term limits 3 to 1. But efforts to mandate short careers for federal lawmakers have been set back this year, with state initiatives proposing limits overturned by the United States Supreme Court.

Gay rights. In Maine, conservatives are pushing a ban on laws that grant rights to homosexuals. A similar referendum failed in Oregon last year, while a measure passed by Colorado is now before the US Supreme Court. The Maine vote looks to be a close one.

These three measures are the most significant in a lean crop of ballot initiatives. Though there are few statewide referendums in this off-year election, the issues they address could resound throughout the country in coming years.

Maine's gay-rights confrontation may be repeated elsewhere unless the issue is settled by the US Supreme Court. The state's biggest city, Portland, passed an ordinance in 1992 prohibiting housing or job discrimination based on sexual orientation. Social and religious conservatives tried to overturn this granting of ''special rights'' to homosexuals, but their effort failed. Now the battle is being waged at the state level, where right-leaning rural areas can weigh in. ''A great deal is going to depend on turnout,'' says Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

On the other coast, the property-rights debate is also coming down to the wire. Land-use issues have become a major sticking point in many Western states.

Here in Washington, rural residents and farmers have grown bitter after seeing the government declare more and more private land off limits as wetlands or wildlife habitat. Such regulatory acts, critics argue, should entitle owners to compensation just as if the land were physically taken by government for public works projects.

The takings reform was set to go onto the November ballot when lawmakers decided to pass it into law by themselves; Gov. Mike Lowry (D) could do nothing, lacking veto power over the bill. That might have been the end of the story. But opponents worried that the law would be too costly and vague and got it back on the ballot. Critics say the law could hold routine zoning and building-code changes hostage to the state's ability to pay landowners. Even supporters acknowledge the law needs more defining.

Chuck Cushman, who heads the American Land Rights Association in Battle Ground, Wash., says it's ironic that bureaucrats are suddenly up in arms over the initiative's potential cost. If states and cities ''can't afford it, what makes them think the landowners can afford it?'' he asks.

Washington puts several other issues to voters Tuesday:

* Three Indian tribes, contending the state has failed to negotiate casino rules in good faith, have gone to voters for the right to install slot machines. But the plan calls for handing over a controversial ''dividend'' - 10 percent of slot revenues - to all voters, which critics see as a virtual bribe.

* Sport-fishing groups have proposed sharp curbs on certain commercial-fishing practices. The effort highlights the conflict over dwindling salmon runs. Despite the initiative's green appearance, critics say it would do little for endangered fish. Many environmental groups are opposing it.

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