RICHMOND, OCT. 12 -- Virginia's economy is in a recession and its unexpectedly poor performance probably will lead to state budget cuts even larger than the $1.4 billion in reductions that Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has already proposed, officials said today.

"It's not rosy," Wilder said today of the latest analysis from the state's forecasters and financial officials, who predict that a national economic downturn lasting the next six months will be mirrored in Virginia -- possibly depressing tax collections even below the sluggish levels the administration has been expecting.

"We're looking at what we would have to do" to balance the budget without new taxes, Wilder said.

"I think we would have to say that there would be additional cuts" if the latest bleak forecasts come true, said Finance Secretary Paul W. Timmreck.

Timmreck declined to speculate on how much tax collections will be down, or how much further the budget may have to cut. But state figures are already showing the effects of the slowdown:

General fund tax collections for the first quarter of the fiscal year that started July 1 grew by 1.4 percent, compared with an earlier forecast of 3 percent.

In September, revenue from the sales tax was $113 million, a $3 million decline from last year.

The state's nonagricultural employment growth is expected to fall to 0.5 percent this fiscal year, the lowest level since the national recession in the early 1980s.

"I really see us in a kind of financial free fall -- the question is where is the floor," said Del. Robert E. Harris (R-Fairfax), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee. "I've always felt that the $1.4 billion {shortfall} would grow by a few hundred million."

The state's economic forecaster, the WEFA Group, had been expecting the economy to grow at a lackluster 1.4 percent annually this fiscal year, but even this modest projection has been revised in light of rising crude oil prices and lowered consumer spending. WEFA's analysts now expect a mild six-month recession, with the economy contracting 1.1 percent in October through December and an additional 0.6 percent during the first three months of 1991.

The state's revenue forecasts have been a rapidly moving target for most of this year, with each dose of bad news followed by an announcement from the Wilder administration that the news is even worse than it thought. Legislators are frustrated.

"I'm trying to piece together where these numbers are coming from and how" they are determined, said Del. Leslie L. Byrne (D-Fairfax). "It seems like every week the date changes and the analysis changes."

Timmreck agreed, but said the uncertainty is caused by rapidly changing data from the federal government, as well as by the economic anxiety created by turmoil in the Persian Gulf.

Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton), the General Assembly's dominant legislator on fiscal matters, said the administration's projections present a "worst-case scenario" that may not require additional cuts if things end up being not so bad after all.

But, he added, "if war breaks out, that's another factor" that would topple all the earlier assumptions.

Byrne wondered if the Wilder administration's talk about a projection recession was ill-advised, because the speculation "tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Timmreck countered that he and Wilder have no choice but to speak candidly about the turmoil that could lie ahead. "To do otherwise," he said, "would be to stick your head in the sand."

In other budget news, Wilder sharply rapped Virginia Tech President James D. McComas's plan for implementing spending cuts at the Blacksburg campus. While instructional programs make up about 65 percent of the university's budget, these programs bore about 75 percent of the spending cuts McComas proposed, according to Wilder.

In a letter to McComas, the governor said, "I am left to wonder whether students and others protesting cuts at the University were informed of the disparate treatment University officials gave . . . in favor of their own administrative functions."

Wilder asked McComas to work with Education Secretary James W. Dyke Jr. to devise a new plan of spending cuts.

"To say the least," Wilder said, "I am disappointed by the University's response to the state's fiscal exigency."