NOBODY IN Virginia is exactly whooping with joy and cheering on the major theme Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has adopted ever since Day Three of his administration, but his call for significant cuts in government spending is an important prescription for the uncertainties of a cooling economy. That these tougher times happen to come at the beginning of his watch -- thanks to the fact that Virginia elects governors in odd-years -- does make political courage come more easily than it does during campaign seasons; still, the governor's early warning and continued insistence that belts be tightened give Virginia an opportunity to move more effectively to cushion the blows to those who pay for as well as receive state and local government services.

Any measure of the pain involved in Gov. Wilder's budget surgery can start right in Northern Virginia. This is where the cuts in money for education, transportation and other programs will deeply affect the services of all levels of government to the most populous part of the state. But the specifics have yet to come and will be negotiable: though the governor does not need legislative approval for most of his proposals and can cut any item in the budget by up to 25 percent and any salary by as much as 15 percent, he says he intends to submit all changes to the state legislature when it convenes in January.

Even then, the bulk of cuts to local governments still won't occur until the second year of the two-year budget cycle that starts on July 1, 1991. One exception of intense concern in Northern Virginia is a proposal by the governor to shelve a previously approved plan to return money from real estate filing fees to local governments. This would require legislative consent, however, and deserves more than a little thought before any vote on what originally was a trade-off for other concessions on the part of local governments.

Similarly, the impacts of cuts in education money should be examined closely -- and fairly -- by the legislature. For example, though Northern Virginia looks financially blessed when measured against other parts of the state, it is looking at a cost of living many times that of other regions in Virginia; heavy requirements to serve its larger population; and singularly sharp effects of economic cooling on government contracts, high-tech activities and the real estate industry.

Gov. Wilder is not unaware of these and other economic differences up and down the state. Neither is he deaf to the bleats of local elected officials whose budgets will be taking hits as well. As House Finance Committee Chairman C. Richard Cranwell of Vinton says, "There will be some give and take, some compromises, some changes." What is important at this point is that Gov. Wilder has focused the thinking on the hard questions that Virginia must answer to preserve the strengths it has achieved in the last decade.