TOPEKA, KAN. -- There are dozens of portable roadside signs along busy Topeka Avenue advertising clothing, frozen foods and car lots, but one that stands out is perched on a front lawn and bears this legend: "Tax Hike Mike is at it again."

Next to it, a blue-and-white sign declares: "Joan Finney for Governor."

Finney, the Democratic nominee for governor, is hoping to tap into a well of taxpayer discontent and use it to drive Republican incumbent Mike Hayden from office in much the same way that she dispatched primary opponent John Carlin.

In doing so, she hopes to capitalize on a new rush of taxpayer discontent that has its roots in the anti-tax rhetoric of two successive Republican administrations in Washington. Voters facing choices in next month's statewide and local elections are signaling their unhappiness with officials who appear prepared to renege on no-tax promises.

The political fallout from the emotions stirred by the tax issue is likely to land most heavily on incumbents, like Hayden, who would have otherwise had a smooth ride to reelection.

Hayden was speaker of the Kansas House and Carlin was governor in 1986 when the state revamped its outdated property tax structure for the first time in 25 years. The result was an increase in property tax assessments that were mailed out last November, angering many taxpayers. Hayden sought to have the increases rolled back, but the legislature would have none of it and the residual anger -- directed mostly at Hayden -- has done more than any other issue to force the Hayden-Finney matchup into a dead heat with three weeks left.

Kansas is not the only state coping with a fresh anti-tax rebellion this election season. Eleven states are tackling the problem head-on by giving voters the opportunity to decide tax limitation initiatives on the November ballot.

The country has not seen such a flurry of ballot initiatives that would roll back, repeal or cap local and state taxes in more than a decade, anti-tax activists say. Many are aimed at property taxes that pay for most local services, including schools.

"All of them are ahead in the polls and will probably lose anyway," said David Keating, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, which keeps track of such initiatives. "That's the nature of initiatives. People like to vote no. If any of them passes, it would be a minor political miracle in its own right."

The true victory, Keating said, would come in the election of legislators and governors who are forced to appreciate the strength of anti-tax sentiment.

"If you lose you often win," said Keating, who counts a 25 percent vote for frequently underfinanced anti-tax initiatives as a sign of strong support. "It raises the visibility of the tax issue."

In many ways, the 1990 tax revolt was foreshadowed last year when voters rejected a "children's initiative" in Washington, rolled back three tax increases approved by the legislature in North Dakota, refused Louisiana Democratic Gov. Buddy Roemer's request for $700 million in excise and sales taxes and rejected tax reform measures in Oregon and Pennsylvania.

"There is a great sentiment in Nebraska, as there appears to be nationally, to throw the rascals out," said Ed Jaksha, an Omaha tax activist who is spearheading a campaign to require a four-fifths vote of the state's unicameral legislature to approve any tax increases of more than 2 percent. Neither incumbent Gov. Kay Orr (R) not challenger Ben Nelson (D) supports the initiative.

A yes vote on a second Nebraska ballot initiative would repeal an increase in sales, corporate and personal income taxes.

"A referendum is often a surface issue for a deeper and more complicated debate," said Tom Kiley, who is tracking a Massachusetts anti-tax initiative as a consultant for the initiative opponents in state government. The Massachusetts initiative would roll back all state taxes to their August 1989 levels.

"The difference is, instead of discontent over property taxes, it's toward the political establishment in general," he said. "And, of course, {outgoing Democratic Gov. Michael S.} Dukakis is at the heart of that."

"When it comes to cynicism, we're a few steps ahead of everyone else this year," Kiley said. "But this cynicism about leadership is being felt everywhere."

Joan Wagnon, a Kansas state representative who is the top-ranking Democrat on the House Taxation Committee, said she sees the problem up close when she campaigns door-to-door for reelection to a fifth term.

"I haven't seen this kind of cynicism in the country since post-Watergate," she said. "It feels like we've gone back 15 years."

Finney, she said, will beat Hayden here only if she capitalizes on the tax issue that is driving the cynicism. Hayden closed an 18-point gap to draw even with Finney in the most recently published poll, but Finney supporters moved to the undecided column, not to Hayden. Hayden plans to spend three times as much as Finney and is upstaging her bare-bones television advertising by shifting the video discussion away from taxes and toward Finney's anti-abortion stance.

"In the end, if taxes are the issue, Finney will win," said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. But he also warns that Finney's performance on the campaign trail has been uneven and could hobble her if voters decide to cast their ballots based on who seems more competent. At a Rotary Club luncheon in Lawrence last week, Finney astonished the audience by appearing to sob when asked to explain her position that abortion should not be allowed even in cases of rape and incest.

Finney, who has been state treasurer for 16 years and is no stranger to statewide campaigns, points out that she surprised everyone by beating Carlin, and predicts the tax issue could provide just the hammer she needs to pound Hayden too. Even Democrats like Wagnon who disagree with Finney on the abortion issue predict the election could be decided by the disenchanted -- voters who choose not to go to the polls at all.

Such disaffection poses no routine threat for lawmakers seeking second and third terms. In Oregon, Massachusetts, California -- where initiatives exist -- and in Michigan, Illinois and Kansas -- where they don't -- tax rebellion could determine the outcome of close races and set state fiscal agendas for years to come.

"It's crystal clear that the legislature, because of political pressure, cannot deal responsibly with the problem," said Don McIntire, a health club owner who is the prime mover behind a proposal to cap property tax assessments in Colorado. "Now the voters are going to trust themselves."

The wrangling in Washington over deficit-reduction strategies has given even radical proposals a boost. Montana voters, for instance, will decide whether to repeal all income, sales and property taxes and replace them with an ill-defined "trade charge" on business and financial dealings. State officials are worried that the Capitol Hill debate has "fueled the fire" for the initiative.

"Sooner or later, people are going to wake up and realize you can't trust the politicians, period," said Don Bruce, the author of Colorado's Taxpayers' Bill of Rights. "No matter how many times they say 'Read my lips' you can't believe them."