American voters sent a mixed message to their elected officials on the subject of taxes last Tuesday, defeating politicians they held responsible for tax increases, rejecting spending measures they saw as wasteful but also rebuffing most proposals to limit taxes.

In California, for example, voters moved away from the blanket anti-tax sentiment that fueled the tax revolts of the 1980s by rejecting a tax limitation initiative. But the same voters also decided against new spending for projects like prison construction. Nationwide, 10 of the 11 ballot initiatives that sought to repeal, roll back or cap taxes failed. The one measure that succeeded, in Oregon, had been on the state ballot in five previous elections and passed by only 4 percentage points.

But voters in Michigan, Nebraska and Kansas turned out incumbent governors made unpopular by their tax policies. The surprising defeats of Govs. James Blanchard (D) of Michigan, Kay Orr (R) of Nebraska and Mike Hayden (R) of Kansas were largely attributable to tax increases that occurred during their administrations.

The results in other states were not always so clear. In Massachusetts, home of perhaps the nation's unhappiest electorate this year, voters defeated a sweeping tax limitation proposal but also the gubernatorial candidate who opposed it, Democrat John R. Silber. They elected Republican William F. Weld, who said he supported it.

"The measure fails but the candidate wins," said Mark Gearan, executive director of the Democratic Governors' Association. "Is that a tax message? Is that an anti-Silber message? It becomes very complicated, I think."

In Illinois, Democrat Neil F. Hartigan vowed to roll back an unpopular 20 percent state income tax surcharge, a stand that exit polls show remained popular among voters through Election Day.

But polls conducted before the election also revealed that voters did not believe Hartigan was being realistic, and he lost anyway.

Michelle Davis, the director of the Republican Governors' Association, said the results showed that many voters can be convinced that new taxes are needed if candidates show how they will spend the money.

"That was the problem with Blanchard, Orr, and Hayden," Davis said. "There was a sense that it {tax increases} was sprung on people."

Republican Jim Edgar won in Illinois while supporting the income tax surcharge, Davis said, because he explained why it was necessary -- to finance education programs -- and kept a distance from President Bush's no-new-taxes pledge, which the president later reversed. "With the real cloud created at the federal level, it was incumbent on politicians at the local level to explain where the money was going," she said.

"Neil Hartigan would have been creamed in a landslide if he hadn't emphasized the tax issue," said David Keating of the National Taxpayers' Union. "But he didn't have great credibility on the issue. Given the whole Bush pledge, people didn't believe it."

In that sense, the 1990 elections became one huge reality check for many candidates in both parties. Steven Gold, the director of the Center for the Study of the States at the State University of New York, said voters are beginning to realize that a sliding economy and increased state spending pressures mean that more tax increases are in the offing.

"I would say there are going to be a lot more tax increases in the next six months than were talked about during the campaign," he said. Gold noted that several states are already in recession, faced with reduced tax collections and unavoidable increased costs for Medicaid, law enforcement and prisons.

"We are going to have a classic battle between the proponents of spending and the people who want low taxes no matter what," he said.

Don McIntire, a health club owner who is chairman of the anti-tax Protect Oregon Property Society, said his state's property tax cap plan would force the state to rely more on its general fund to pay for schools. The plan passed, he said, because voters no longer believed state officials who had pledged to find other ways to provide property tax relief.

"Finally, property taxes were higher than ever," he said.

But Oregon officials have already begun talking about using a new sales tax to make up the loss in property tax revenues, and McIntire said he is prepared to fight again.

"If we think that this tax issue has been settled, we are crazy," said Democratic consultant Paul Maslin. "Look at New Jersey, California. It's still in flux."

Joel Fox, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' Association in California, watched public sentiment on taxes shift dramatically since June, when voters endorsed an increase in the state gasoline tax and supported a number of bond issues.

"When we voted in June, there was no threat of war in the Middle East and no talk of a recession brought on by that threat," he said.

Even in states where the taxation issue played a clear role, voters often chose to send their message through unconventional avenues. In New Jersey, for example, Sen. Bill Bradley (D) was caught in an unexpectedly close reelection race against a virtual unknown as voters used him to express unhappiness with Democratic Gov. Jim Florio, who had engineered a huge state tax increase largely to meet education needs.

Anti-tax activists like Keating of the National Taxpayers' Union plan to use the discontent to drive future debates on the tax issue.

"The failure rate on initiatives is always very high," he said. "But they'll be back."

Staff writer E.J. Dionne Jr. contributed to this report.