BACK IN the sunnier seasons when the budgets of the Old Dominion were flush with revenues ready to be dispensed across the land, the appropriations process in Richmond was pretty much left to the governor and the house and senate committees to work out and then railroaded through their respective floors for a conference near the end of the session. Nobody ever claimed it was the most democratic process on the East Coast, but it was the way it was done.

Not so today -- as the financial debates begin in Richmond with the state staring at a $2.2 billion revenue shortfall for a $24 billion biennial budget. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has his idea of what's fiscally necessary, but so do the politically nervous members of the house and senate -- all of whose seats are up for election this fall. Gov. Wilder, who has been preaching austerity ever since his inauguration more than a year ago, has proposed some sharp cuts in spending while insisting that he should maintain a $200 million "rainy day" fund for future revenue damage control. A senate plan would cut this reserve in half on the grounds that the rainy season is in full swing already. What's the governor waiting for? It's pouring, and though $100 million in this multibillion-dollar shortage is no big deal, why sit on it indefinitely?

But the governor is reportedly fuming at the senate plan and lining up as many senate Democratic lieutenants as he can to undo the proposal engineered by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton). And the governor has found some soft spots in the Andrews version. After a meeting Tuesday with a dozen members, Gov. Wilder accused Sen. Andrews of stripping $1 million in medical care for the poor from the budget while finding money to equip the replica of a historical ship that will be based in the senator's home district. Sen. Andrews replied that the $1 million cut in money to hospitals at the University of Virginia and the Medical College of Virginia "has nothing to do with direct payments to poor people." A committee aide had a different explanation, saying the money was to have been used as a subsidy to the hospitals "to offset the cost of caring for indigents."

Sen. Andrews defended the appropriation to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, of which he is a member, to equip the ship. "It's no different than equipping a building," he said. Gov. Wilder fired a shot across that bow in an interview: "How can you explain the rationale for putting money into a ship while people are in need?" The appropriation for this project is set at $140,000. Another appropriation -- $550,000 for a guest house and visitors center at Clinch Valley College -- came under similar fire from the governor.

The same kind of small-bore sparring continued yesterday over a house proposal that would require Gov. Wilder to make public details of his frequent use of state aircraft. The author of this measure, Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst), said he'll resist any floor attempt to have it removed from the house budget proposal.

All of this may make for lively debate today, but the dimension of Virginia's financial problems demands more sophisticated deliberations than appear to be in the offing at this point. Gov. Wilder played a most valuable role in warning of a financial storm. That bad weather is here now -- and it will take his reserve and then some to meet the shortfall without seriously damaging education needs or saving at the expense of those in the state who most need help.