The 1980 Virginia General Assembly will open Wednesday with one overriding issue on its mind: money.

The need to juggle tax cuts and tax increases to meet skyrocketing costs is expected to preoccupy the legislature, which traditionally has embraced minimal government growth.

Republican Gov. John N. Dalton's 1980-82 budget, expected to top $10 billion, will be the central topic of the 60-day session and some of his administration's spending priorities are certain to cause controversy.

"It's Dalton's first real budget -- one he's worked on himself rather than inherited," said state Sen. Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), the Senate's new majority leader. "We'll be looking at it very carefully."

The 140-member Assembly will concentrate on two things, Andrews said: "What money do we have, and where's it going to be spent?"

Dalton's top priority, he has said in the past, is to buttress the Department of Highways and Transportation. Its highway construction and maintenance funds have become seriously depleted because of declining revenues from gasoline taxes.

With conservation-minded motorists buying less gasoline and highway construction costs rising rapidly, the problem will be all the more acute in the coming decade.

The governor already has decided that imposing a 4 percent sales tax on wholesale gasoline prices is the best way to cope with this particular revenue crisis. And he has promised Northern Virginia legislators a nearly $20 million share of the new funds to help defray the region's Metro construction costs.

Dalton will be detailing that proposal and others in his speech Wednesday to the Assembly. His audience, however, will be full of legislators from both parties who were elected last November after promising not to increase taxes.

In addition, the powerful highway lobby -- a loose coalition of highway officials, road builders and the trucking industry -- will be a major factor in whether the gasoline tax measure gets through the legislature.

Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) says energy and inflation concerns will have a heavy impact on the state's overall economy and revenue projections.

"The arguments will be about whether we're estimating too high or too low," said Callahan, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

While Dalton is proposing a gasoline tax increase, some lawmakers will be suggesting a number of tax cuts, chief among them a gradual phasing out of the controversial 4 percent sales tax on food.

The issue, a heated sparring point in the 1973 governor's race between Henry Howell and Mills Godwin, has been revived by consumers weary of soaring grocery bills.

A study commission headed by Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) has concluded that the food tax can be phased out over six years without any serious impact on state revenues.

That proposal will have to compete, however, with several other tax cut measures, among them:

Elimination or reduction of the sales tax on home heating oil.

Trying the state (income tax to the inflation rate so that deductions will increase yearly in step with inflation.

A proposed state constitutional amendment to put a ceiling on taxes.

All of these proposals will be brought up at a time when Virginia also has to find $150 million in new funds over the next two years to aid localities. This was promised during the last session as part of a compromise in an annexation package.

"It's hard for me to see how all these things will fit," says Stambaugh."This session may well turn into a real donnybrook before it's over."

Dalton's capital projects budget will also come under intense scrutiny, particularly by legislators who don't like the governor's plans to spend half of it on prison construction.

"There will be a big battle over whether the governor gets to build a whole lot of new prisons or whether he can be forced to pay some attention to more pressing matters, such as education and mental health" said Del. Mary Marshall (D-Arlington).

In addition, Marshall added, women in the Assembly will be trying to address the property problems women face in divorce, inheritance or joint bank account situations. And, for the eighth year in a row, the Equal Rights Amendment will face an uphill battle for Assembly ratification.

State Sen. Joseph V. Gartian Jr. (D-Fairfax) says a proposal to overhaul the state's sexual assault laws -- which critics say discriminate against the victims of rape -- will be introduced again, as well as some legislation to extend enviromental protections to barren areas and dunes along the coast.

But Gartlan, whose sexual assault and coastal management bills suffered stinging defeats in the Assembly last year, said he would not sponsor any sweeping coastal protection measure again "as long as Dalton is governor."

Leadership changes in both the House of Delegates and the Senate have some Northern Virginians edgy, especially since this area's most powerful Assembly leader, Sen. Adelard L. Brault. (D-Fairfax), was ousted by Andrews last month from the majority leader post.

Andrews says the northern Virginia region won't suffer at his hands "because we're all part of the great glorious Commonwealth."

Brault, still smarting from his defeat, also says he can be effective in getting Northern Virginia legislation passed. He expects that "some of my very dear friends who did not support me" will now be "anxious" to make it up to him by supporting his pet bills.

Gartlan offers a more practical reason for expecting good treatment from Andrews.

"Hunter is not a stupid politician, and he has long term ambitions [to run for governor] that will make Northern Virginia support important to him," Gartlan said.