03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Perfect Storm 2010?

A sour economy, political gridlock and year upon year of sagging budget revenues are threatening to combine into a perfect initiative storm that could hit California next November.

The sheer numbers are daunting enough, with 87 different initiative proposals filed. But the nature of the brewing conflict, pitting business and tax organizations on one side and labor interests on the other, could be one for the record books.

Just last week, business interests filed two proposed initiatives to rein in the legislature's ability to impose new fees and taxes. Anti-tax groups followed suit, taking the first steps to impose a new cap on spending.

These moves come after a separate but related pair of salvos in the quickly widening conflict: one ballot measure to restrict the pension benefits of public employees and a second measure that would restrict public employee union spending on political candidates and campaigns.

Not surprisingly, unions are firing back with initiative proposals of their own -- including one to allow tax increases on commercial and industrial property, and another to require businesses to seek shareholder approval on corporate campaign contributions.

What's ahead? For starters, a high-stakes game of political chicken.

California's initiative petition process isn't for the faint-hearted. It takes more than 400,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, with signature gathering operations charging close to $2 for every name.

Toss in legal costs, consulting fees and research, and you're looking at more than $1 million just to stay in the game. An initiative campaign itself will cost many millions more.

Come January, strategists from all sides will have to decide whether to play offense -- by putting petitions on the street -- or to stay on defense by focusing on defeating measures they oppose.

Not since 2005, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sponsored a series of ballot initiatives that all went down to defeat, have the political storm clouds looked so dark.

But there's at least one new wrinkle this time around -- several non-partisan efforts to bring some much-needed reforms to state government.

With voters in a sour mood -- and likely to reject anything that's overly partisan or self-serving -- reform may prove to be the only safe harbor in the coming political storm.