A grinning Gov. John N. Dalton, manila folder in hand, stepped forward to greet the nine delegates and senators dispatched to his office Saturday night to receive his ceremonial message marking the close of the 1980 Virginia General Assembly.

"I was just going through my files and I found that I had one more little bill for you that I'd forgotten about," Dalton quipped as the legislators groaned in mock horror.

The groans were more than justified because it was the Republican governor's one "little" bill, his proposed 4-cent increase in the state gasoline tax, that kept the Democratic-controlled legislature tied in knots for most of the 60-day session.

Dalton touched off the two months of political maneuvering, intrigue and arm-twisting on opening day in January when he unveiled the tax proposal designed to pay for highways and -- for the first time -- committed the state to help finance completion of the Metro subway system.

But Dalton failed to rally support from members of his own party and eventually bowed to a compromise, endorsed and rammed through by the legislature's Democratic leadership, that gave the state a 2-cent-a-gallon gasoline increase.

That tax will raise $60 million next year for highways, but was too little to help Metro. As a result, Northern Virginia lawmakers were forced to turn to alternative, regional proposals to fund the system.

At first, most of the Northern Virginians rallied behind a proposal by Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) to fund Metro with a 4 percent regional sales tax on gasoline. That bill breezed through the House of Delegates last month with support from 14 to 19 Northern Virginians.

But the legislators began having second thoughts when Dalton's 2 cent state tax zigzagged through the hostile House Finance Committee and passed the House floor. They were particularly concerned that the state and regional proposals combined could add as much as 10 cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline by year's end, an increase they feared would be politically indefensible back home.

So the Northern Virginia delegation tried an 11-hour switch: substituting a 1 percent general sales tax increase for the 4 percent gasoline tax. While the new plan easily passed the Senate, it was killed in a House committee, forcing the lawmakers to return to the 4 percent proposal.

The Senate amended that bill to phase in 2 percent of the tax this July and the other 2 percent in 1982. But the final plan badly alienated Fairfax County delegates, who felt the automobile-dominated county would pay a disportionately high share of Metro costs.

The Fairfax legislators also were unhappy that the tax was to be imposed by the state, giving residents in the five Northern Virginia jurisdictions no say on the matter.

"We're ramming it down their throats," complained Fairfax Republican Warren E. Barry, who later referred to the bill's narrow passage as the "rape of Fairfax."

In the end, only seven Northern Virginia delegates -- all but one from the region's urbanized inner surburbs of Alexandria and Arlington -- voted for the bill.

Although it often seemed as if the two gasoline tax bills were the only issues before the legislature, they were actually but two of 1,928 bills and resolutions introduced. By the end of the session, about 1,100 proposals were passed.

Still, most legislators thought the session had a listless, lethargic quality. And those who sponsored major consumer of tax repeal legislation found themselves thwarted.

"It was such a disappointing session," said Del. Lewis P. Fickett (D-Fredericksburg). "Virtually nothing that would have given the average consumer a break got anywhere.That's been the mood down here before, but I get the sense it may be the mood of the whole country as well, as it's a little frightening."

"Everyone I've talked to says that their mail is way down, phone calls are off, nobody seems very interested," said Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington). "I don't know, maybe the idea of less government has caught on."

Here's a summary of some of the major bills that survived or went down to defeat in the 1980 General Assembly: Tax Repeals

An effort to repeal the state's 4 percent sales tax on food failed again, although the measure appeared to have more legislative support than ever before. The House Finance Committee refused to approve a plan that would have phased out the tax over six years, although it did pass companion measures to repeal sales taxes on nonprescription drugs and home heating fuels. m

Both measures passed the full House, but the drug repeal bill died in the Senate Finance Committee. The repeal of the heating fuel tax survived, but will not take effect until 1982. Even so, Governor Dalton indicated earlier this week he may not sign the bill because it would reduce state revenues. State Spending

One bill Dalton undoubtedly will sign is the $11.6 billion state budget for 1980-82, which despite some minor surgery emerged in essentially the same form as had been recommended by Dalton.

As usual, the bulk of the money goes to education, public health, welfare and transportation. The budget represents about a 20 percent increase over current spending but, when inflation is factored in, allows for little program expansion.

The Assembly also proved stingy in defeating an ambitious proposal that would have substantially lowered state income taxes by trying family exemptions and credits to the inflation rate.

As in past years, there were numerous attempts to put either a constitutional or statutory lid on state spending, but the legislation was killed or carried over until next year. Financial Industry

Bills favoring state financial institutions fared better, with the Assembly voting to remove the 12 percent interest ceiling on installment loans, allow savings and loan associations to impose variable rate mortgages that can be renegotiated every three to five years and raise the interest-rate ceiling on credit union loans from 12 to 15 percent.

Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) watched a bill he sponsored on banking pactices breeze unanimously through the Senate only to be carried over by a House committee known for its insensitivity to consumer interests.

The measure, which one legislator called "the best bill of the session," would have required banks to pay customers a penalty fee for banking errors, just the same as banks charge customers who mistakenly overdraw their accounts. Heavy lobbying by banking representatives convinced the House committee that the bill needed further study. Condo Conversions

Tenants threatened by condominium conversion of their apartment buildings won an extension of state-required conversion notices to six months from the present three. But they could not convince the Assembly to approve a bill allowing them special purchase rights when their buildings are threatened with conversion.

Owners of new condominiums, however, did get a break under a bill giving them nearly the same warranty rights on their purchases as buyers of new, single-family homes have. Auto Emissions

Northern Virginia motorists face the prospect of taking their cars in for annual tailpipe exhaust inspections to make sure the vehicles are not contributing inordinately to the region's air pollution problem. The Assembly passed the bill only after the Environmental Protection Agency threatened to cut off more than $100 million in federal funds to the area. Utilities

The public utility industry won the right to put new rates into effect five months after notifying the State Corporation Commission, but must refund any rate hikes that the SCC ultimately disallows.

A plan to increase the number of SCC commissioners from three to five was carried over by a Senate committee. The move was supported by most SCC critics who charge the commission is too soft in handing out rate increases. Liquor, Drug Bills

A move led by Fairfax Delegate Barry to raise the state's beer drinking age from 18 to 19 or 20 failed, thanks to some fancy legislative footwork from House General Laws Chairman Thomas W. Moss of Norfolk, who defeated it in committee.

But another bill, banning the sale of drug-related paraphernalia and publications advertising them to minors, passed even though the American Civil Liberties Union warned the measure was unconstitutionally vague and would be struck down by the courts.

Virginia's alcohol and beverage control laws, which underwent a major liberalization several years ago when the Assembly approved the sale of liquor by the drink, were amended again to ease still more restrictions.

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) sponsored legislation to allow mixed beverage restaurants to sell more alcohol beverages than food. The measure moved easily through the Senate before running into fierce opposition from religious groups concerned that the bill would return Virginia to the saloon era.

Despite their lobbying efforts and additional opposition from Alexandria legislators -- concerned about the bill's impact on Old Town's waterfront establishments -- the measure squeaked by a House committee and was narrowly approved on the House floor. Women's Issues

The Assembly continued to show its usual disdain for so-called women's rights legislation, either killing or carrying over for further study several measures aimed at protecting or increasing the legal standing of women.

For only the second time in the eight years, the Equal Rights Amendment actually reached the Senate floor, where it again was defeated.

The U.S. constitutional amendment banning sex discrimination failed to win approval that would have allowed Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb to cast the deciding vote in its favor was avoided when an ERA opponent, Sen. John Chicester (R-Fredericksburg), abstained from voting under the questionable use of the Senate's conflict of interest rule.

Other bills involving women's issues fell through after encountering the same hostile House Courts of Justice Committee, which has either axed or gutted their provisions in past years.

A marital property bill supported by all nine women in the 140-member Assmebly died in the committee, as did a Senate-approved measure that would have revamped the state's sexual assault laws.

The marital property bill attempted to spell out a spouse's right to equal division of property in divorces, and the sexual assault legislation was aimed at shifting the emphasis of the crime away from sex to violence and making it easier for victims to report and prosecute such attacks. School Prayer

Lobbying by some of the same fundamentalist religious groups who opposed easing liquor restrictions inspired some of the most talked-about measures of the session. A resolution on behalf of a "Body of Christ" demonstration in Washington to bring back school prayer was supported by the fundamentalists, but was substantially changed after civil libertarians and some of the Assembly's Jewish members argued that the measure was inappropriate.

Lobbying by religious interests helped to push through another resolution in support of voluntary school prayer and also had a hand in watering down a bill providing for stricter state regulation of college degrees awarded by Bible schools and similar religious institutions. Ethics

A Norfolk newspaper's expose of numerous conflicts of interest on the part of Virginia lawmakers sparked some enthusiasm for improving safeguards against possibly improper or self-serving conduct by legislators. A measure authorizing an official study of legislative ethics passed the Senate but was almost killed by a House committee until the panel decided to revive the proposal and approve it. The Judiciary

A long-running controversy over the assembly's method of nominating and electing judges surfaced again this session along with a perennial proposal for revising its judicial selection process.

Sen. William Parkerson (D-Henrico) sponsored a bill to establish local nominating commissions that would help screen potential candidates for the bench and would make recommendations to the legislature, which still would approve final selections.

After the measure cleared the Senate, however, Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond) made an emotional -- and successful -- appeal to a House committee to scuttle the legislation for the year.

Wilder, the Senate's first and only black, argued that those most likely to be invovled in the local commissions had traditionally failed to nominate blacks or women for judicial vacancies. He said the assembly was in a better position to increase the number of minorities on the bench by using the present system, which allows lawmakers to exert more local political clout. Criminal Statutes

Proponents of so-called law and order legislation failed in their attempts to repeal the "early release" prison statute approved last year. They also lost a bid to broaden the state death penalty law to include persons convicted of mass murders.

Both measures, sponsored by Saslaw, were hotly debated, especially the bill to repeal early parole, which allows for the supervised release of inmates who are within six months of completing their sentences. Despite concern caused by two murders allegedly committed by inmates released under the program, the Senate narrowly rejected the repeal proposal after several legislators argued that some supervision was better than none at all.

The effort to add another category of murder to the death penalty statute failed when a Senate-approved bill was killed in a House committee.

In a related bill, the assembly defeated a measure that would have replaced the electric chair with death by lethal injections of drugs.