FOR 15 YEARS, opponents of Virginia's food tax couldn't muster enough votes to cut this grossly regressive levy. But today perhaps a few more election-conscious lawmakers are hearing the footsteps of tax-strapped constituents demanding relief: in a dramatic vote, the Virginia House has approved a bill to cut the 4-cent sales tax on food in half -- and all eyes are turning to the state Senate. Here is an opportunity to give a break to the most deserving.

As any consumer knows, this is hardly a partisan question. Nor did the House vote come out that way: Republicans as well as Democrats were almost evenly split, despite objections of the Republican governor, John N. Dalton, who insists that reducing the food tax would force cuts in vital state services. Mr. Dalton and some of the Democratic leaders in the Senate argue that state aid to localities would have to be trimmed sharply But with a $201-million surplus on hand, what better service could the legislators perform for taxpayers?

Another weak argument of food tax supporters is that the tax helps to finance projects for the poor and therefore is a good source of revenue. That's out of the Revisionist Robin Hood School -- tax the poor to help the poor. As longtime food tax opponent Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) points out, "The fact is, and we all know it, that we'll never, ever have enough money to meet all the needs we will always have," and this shouldn't be an excuse for raising the money in bad ways.

When it comes to vote, each senator should take into account the economic hardships of constituents as well as the fundamental inequity of the food tax. What the House has approved is a moderate step, but one that would bring widespread financial relief. Given the state of pocketbooks these days, Senate approval could not come at a more opportune time.