When asked why a pay raise wasn't recommended for Virginia's estimated 70,000 state workers this year, some state legislators here have a swift, direct answer: nobody asked.

At a time when growing militancy is reported among public employees across the nation, Virginia state employees - like many of this state's political traditions - remain an anomaly.

Despite a rapid rise in numbers and relatively modest salary gains in recent years, the state's workers remain a conservative, timorous and, some stay, an almost docile lot.

The intense lobbying for pay and fringe benefits commonplace in Maryland and North Carolina are unknown here.

And that's the way some legislators and state officials like it. When one group of tax department workers last week laid letters appealing for higher salaries on the desk of delegates the day they were to vote on the state budget, some legislators were infuriated. "I though it inappropriate," said Del. Cleves Manning (D-Portsmouth).

Three weeks ago when employees of the state Department of Highways and Transportation began circulating petitions calling for a pay increase, the department's personnel officer fired off memos warning workers they could neither solicit signatures on working hours nor on the department's premises.

Conservative members of the House Appropriations Committee say they were angered by what one calls the "attempted mucle play" of the state's more militant Virginia Education Association which represents teachers

Yet it is publicly conceded by no less an authority than the state's chief executive, Gov. Mills E. Godwin, that Virginia's public employees are paid "far" less than workers in private industry in the state. A staunch opponent of collective bargaining for public employees, Godwin has proposed nothing specific for the employees.

Some mebers of the State Senate, currently considering amendments to the state's biennial budget, say they would like to do something to boost the salaries of some workers. But the state, they note, doesn't even know how many workers it has and how many are in what pay categories and grades.

And the workers aren't much better off. Their employee association, an 18-year-old organizatio of 21,000, is prohibited by its consultant from even discussing high wages.

When Del. Ira M. Lechner (D-Arlington), who has repeatedly championed higher pay for state workers, went to the group earlier this year seeking support, he was told they wouldn't touch the pay issue.

The employee group, headed by George S. Thompson, 65, a retired insurance wroker, makes no appology for its inaction over wages. "It was done to assure management, I guess you would say, that we are not interested in being a union," Thompson said.

In sharp contrast to the well-heeled lobbies run by employees associations in Annapolis and Raleigh, N.C. (a state that specifically outlaws public employees unions). Thompson's Virginia Governmental Employees' Association is deliberately a low-cost, "low profil" operation that some state workers complain concentrates on arranging discount entertainment and avoids contacts with General Assembly members.

In Washington, a labor official familiar with state employee groups across the nation flatly describes the Virginia group as "the weakest" such organization in the nation and says the Virginia organization is also one of the least sophisticated.

But suggesting Virginia employees need a more aggressive posture finds no sympathy here. There is "no sentiment to change," insists Thompson. "My feeling is that our employees do not want a union."

Indeed, as Godwin this week seemed to warm to the idea of a state employee pay raise, Thompson, a baldish man was found haunched over a typewriter in his modest office a block from the Capitol, unconcerned that lobbyists for groups that might be taxed for such an employee pay boost were scurrying about the legislature attempting to scuttle any effort to raise taxes on their clients.

Thompson said he was more worried about his group's current membership drive than the legislature. "I have to wear two hats, you know," he said.

"It's surprising," said Sen. Adelard L. Brautl (D-Fairfax), that no state employee group has contacted him during the session. Brault as Senate majority leader and member of the Senate Finance Committee could be in a position to do something for the workers. And he says he may, but his actions are prompted more as a "matter of conscience" than as a result of any employee lobbying.

Even some liberal legislators who admit they should be sympathetic say the workers are too upathetic, too politically conservative to concern them. Sen. Joseph T. Fitzpatrick (D-Norfolk), chairman of the state Democratic Party, blames conservative state workers in the Richmond area for Jimmy Carter's losses in the 1976 election in Virginia.

"Look at the results; Carter lost the Richmond area by about 37,000 votes," Fitzpatrick said. "Now I can sympathize with them on a pay raise, but I don't feel I have to be out in front of them and lead the charge."

Del. Robb James (D-Henrico) from suburban Richmond, who did support a pay increase, says there is a political reason why many legislators feel indifferent towards state employees. "They say they won't work in your campaign and they wont' give," he said.

Both James and Lechner believe this session may mark an end to the passivity of state employee groups. "I think we may be seeing the beginning" of more activity on the part of state workers," said James.

In 10 days, Lechner says workers across the state have sent him 689 petitions bearing more than 13,000 signatures for higher pay for state workers. Not all of the signers are state employees, but Lechner says efforts by some state agencies such as the Highway Department to discourage workers from signing the petitions has only helpoed stir interest.

But even if the Senate does next week proved an across-the-board poay increase for state employees, the measure may have a tough fight in the House of Delegates.

But Lechner warns that failure to help workers this year meet the cost of inflation could have far-reaching consequences. "If the General Assembly did anything to inspire collective bargaining by state employees this year, they did it by avoiding a pay increase for them," Lechner said.

Lechner's position wins support from no less a conservative than Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who is openly critical of the way the House snubbed public workers." All they're going to do is to cater" to the pro-union movement among state workers, he said. "Everything we're doing is knocking them down . . . is anti-employee."