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Ballot Questions Spice Up Election

Americans take decisionmaking into own hands - on matters from the homeless to taxes

ALASKANS will decide whether smoking marijuana should be illegal - yes, illegal. Montana residents are considering whether to jettison their entire tax system.

In Washington, D.C., the focus is on shelters for the homeless.

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Some of the most sensitive issues in American politics will be decided next week in referendums that should provide important clues of the public mood as the nation enters the 1990s.

There is be no dearth of issues to plumb the electorate about: 68 measures will be on statewide ballots in all, the most since the 1930s, a sign that ``direct democracy'' is flourishing, or, perhaps just as accurate, that the normal channels of government are not.

Indeed, there are so many ballot propositions this year - at least in California - that situation has rekindled the debate over whether the process has careened out of control.

Thirteen initiatives will be on the ballot here in California. Add in the other questions to be decided, mainly bond measures, and the number jumps to 28 - the fourth highest in state history. The explanatory ballot pamphlet sent out by the secretary of state is a Michneresque 222 pages long, in two volumes.

Critics complain that a process designed to give voters a direct say in government and circumvent special interests and unresponsive legislatures is becoming a tool of wealthy advocacy groups. They argue that complex decisions are being made by the electorate based largely on 30-second TV spots.

``P. T. Barnum would have loved this election,'' says Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.

Yet supporters of the process counter that, even if abuses exist, it still gives voters an outlet from the normal channels of government.

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In most cases, they argue, voters make informed decisions.

Although the depth of public sentiment on issues will not be known until after the election, some trends are evident from the kinds of propositions that made it onto ballots.

There is, for instance, an air of restiveness - even revolt - over the way government is being run. This is perhaps best typified by initiatives in Colorado and California that would limit the number of years a lawmaker can hold office.

The two measures in California, both ahead in the polls, would limit the tenure of state lawmakers.

The Colorado initiative would apply to the state's congressional representatives as well.

In September, Oklahoma voters became the first to limit state lawmakers' terms.

If California and Colorado follow suit, many analysts think the movement will become nationwide.

``The elections of 1990 may well be remembered as the first volley in a voter revolt to take back control of their government,'' says John Keast, an analyst at the conservative Free Congress Foundation who tracks ballot referendums.

Rebelliousness also is showing up in tax measures. Nine tax or spending limitation initiatives will be on ballots in eight states, the most since the late 1970s.

The most far-reaching is a proposal in Montana to eliminate state income, property, and sales taxes and replace them with a charge on business transactions. This is seen as an extreme step even for independent-minded Montanans.

A more serious contender is Question 3 in Massachusetts, which would cancel recently passed taxes and fees. California and Colorado will consider whether to buttress fiscal limitations adopted in years past. Voters in Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, and Oregon also will weigh spending limits.

``Recent tax increases are provoking some concern,'' says Scott Mackey, a fiscal analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. ``But whether this constitutes a revolt is still uncertain.''

A few states could raise levies. Californians will vote on an increase in the sales tax to fund the war on drugs. In Arizona, a fight is shaping up over a measure that would pump $5.9 billion into education over 10 years, though it doesn't specify where the money would come from.

Other areas attracting attention:

Environment. ``Big Green,'' a sweeping initiative on the ballot here, is being hailed by proponents as a new approach to handling environmental problems. But critics worry about its economic impact. ``Little Green'' is a plan to control growth in Washington State.

Social issues. Two closely watched abortion measures are on the ballot in Oregon - one requiring parental consent for teenage abortions and another that is more restrictive. Another initiative there would establish open enrollment in public schools and provide tax credits to families sending children to private schools.

Potpourri. Fourteen gambling or lottery measures are on ballots. Arizonans will decide whether they want a Martin Luther King holiday.

Under the housecleaning category: A Mississippi proposal to repeal granting pensions to Confederate soldiers.

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