THOSE WHO profess to be testing the political winds in Virginia are betting -- maybe not their life savings -- that voters will approve a state-operated lobby next month. If so, the lottery would spring to life only weeks thereafter: the proposal calls for establishment of the operation as of Dec. 1. But is the proposal as put to referendum a good idea? Though over the past 15 years or so we have adopted a somewhat tolerant view of voter-approved state lotteries as a possible voluntary source of new revenues, we believe the Virginia proposal as written should be rejected.

This conclusion is based not on the moral questions that many of the lottery's strongest opponents are raising. Gambling in the form of legalized state lotteries is no longer a new idea, and the experiences of various states that operate these lotteries have been mixed. Certainly other forms of gambling have been popular, from horse racing to church bingo nights or the stock market. In other countries, government-run lotteries have flourished for decades without demonstrably corrupting the people.

As one thoughtful opponent of the Virginia lottery proposal -- State Sen. Edward M. Holland of Arlington -- says, "I'll leave the preaching of morals to the preachers." What worries him is the permanent nature of this proposal; once started, the lottery would obligate the state and the taxpayers to payouts long into the future -- regardless of whether they decided to maintain or shut down the operation.

The lottery proposal also forbids advertising. Those who dislike the idea of a government promoting gambling -- or even just the anti-work-ethic, get-something-for-nothing idea -- argue that the prohibition on advertising would probably be lifted in time, because the pursuit of revenues through the lottery would call for promotion. Yet there is something distasteful about the get-rich-quick themes of the local lottery ads that we already see on television for the Maryland and District lotteries. "In a sinful world the government should not promote sin," says Del. Mary Marshall of Arlington, who points out another serious flaw in the Virginia proposal:

People who are not allowed to register to vote without a pardon from the governor would be able to get licenses to sell lottery tickets. This includes a person "who has (i) been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude, (ii) been convicted of bookmaking or other forms of illegal gambling, (iii) been found guilty of any fraud or misrepresentation in any connection, or (iv) been convicted of a felony."

Does the state of Virginia's long and distinguished record of sound state financing need this kind of operation -- which would be exempted from the merit system for hiring and promoting, the requirement for competitive bidding and the requirement for public hearings before the adoption of rules?

Former governors Robb, Godwin and Holton are among those who oppose the lottery proposal, and their unanimity on this question should at least give pause to those who might otherwise say: Who cares? Virginians should care about this one -- and vote it down