RICHMOND -- Virginia cigarette smokers, automobile owners and operators of tanning parlors will find life just a little more burdensome starting today.

On the other hand, a new era of liberation is about to begin for those who register to vote, seek to learn about crime reports filed with the local police or want to avoid a blizzard of "junk fax" messages.

Today, the first day of fiscal year 1991 in Virginia, is the traditional date on which new laws go into effect. The General Assembly passed almost 1,000 bills in its winter session, including a $26 billion two-year fiscal plan.

Virginia's new antismoking law -- a measure that's drawing attention statewide and even nationally -- won't have much impact in Northern Virginia, where most local governments had already passed smoking restrictions that are tougher than the new state law and which will remain in effect.

Nonetheless, the legislature's law -- which restricts smoking statewide in cashier lines and numerous other public places and mandates no-smoking areas in hospitals and restaurants with more than 50 seats -- is a major change in Virginia, where the "Golden Leaf" has reigned for almost four centuries and tobacco remains the leading cash crop.

Less historic, but a time-honored solution for governments in search of revenue, are numerous increases in fees for automobiles and boats.

The maximum fee for automobile inspection is rising from $6 to $10 and the fee for automobile registration from $25 to $26.

Boat owners have it worse. Their annual registration fee will increase from $11 to $18 for motorboats 16 feet long or greater and the maximum tax for the sale of any boat is doubling from $1,000 to $2,000.

While the legislature and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder were grappling with a fiscal crunch caused by a cooling of tax revenue, they also found time to impose regulations designed to promote safety at tanning salons.

Owners must post signs warning of the hazards of overexposure to the high-intensity ultraviolet rays emitted by tanning lamps and they must provide tanners with goggles. Tanners must sign a statement saying they have read the warning.

Virginia's voter registration laws, which historically have been some of the nation's most restrictive, were loosened a bit this year. It's now possible to register in any locality, regardless of where one lives. An Arlington County resident, for example, can now register while shopping at Potomac Mills Mall in Prince William County. On Election Day, voters must still cast their ballots in their home precincts.

Another measure was pushed primarily by the Virginia Press Association and concerns public access to police records. Police incident reports involving felonies must now be made available to reporters or other members of the public who ask, unless police can demonstrate, among other things, that disclosing the records would jeopardize an investigation.

As it now stands, only arrest records are public, and news organizations have complained that police secrecy has left the public uninformed about crimes -- such as strings of unsolved rapes or break-ins in a particular neighborhood.

"Virginia's exemption of police records {from the Freedom of Information Act} has been very broad, and in my view unnecessarily broad," said David C. Kohler, an attorney for the press association. "The public has a vital interest in criminal activity in the area, and how it's being investigated, and whether it's being investigated successfully."

One new law might fairly be called the Office Workers Relief Act. It's now illegal to send an unsolicited message by telefax, an immense relief to the many offices who have been flooded with unwanted "junk faxes" from advertisers or would-be office vendors.

Among other new laws: Four-year-olds will no longer be able to attend kindergarten unless they turn 5 by Sept. 30. The old law had allowed younger children to enroll if they turned 5 by Dec. 1 and passed a special test, but educators said this policy was putting many youngsters in school before they were ready.

Merchants can no longer write down credit card numbers on personal checks. Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, who pushed for the bill, said that practice was leading to fraudulent charges.

Group homes for up to eight mentally disabled people can now be placed in residential neighborhoods without special approval by the local government. Advocates for the mentally disabled have complained that localities and neighborhood groups are using zoning codes to discriminate against group homes.