Gov. John N. Dalton, Virginia's apostle of frugal government, today proposed a budget that would effectively cut spending on most existing state programs while providing new taxes for Metro and highway construction.

Dalton told the opening session of the state legislature that he was not sounding a "retreat from the provision of essential services." But the conservative Republican went on to boast that when adjusted for the impact of inflation, his spending plan will "contain fewer dollars than required to fund 1978 appropriations."

As expected, Dalton's decision to link funding for Metro construction with a gasoline tax brought delight to Northern Virginia legislators. Some said the budget could mark an end to nearly a decade of defeats in their efforts to achieve substantial -- and stable -- state funding for mass transit in the Washington suburbs.

"That's more than just an olive branch -- that's an olive tree," said Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington), summing up the prevailing views of an obviously pleased 28-member Northern Virginia delegation. "It's both a realization of how important Metro is to our area and how important our support is for a tax increase to pass."

Dalton's proposal to place a 4 percent sales tax on wholesale gasoline sales was the only increase he suggested in a 45-minute speech that otherwise repeated the governor's persistent theme of tight restraints on state spending. r

He told the lawmakers that his new 1980-82 budget, the first prepared exclusively by his administration, would total $11.5 billion. Officials said cuts would be applied virtually across the board, with areas such as education and social welfare each receiving less in real dollars than in previous years.

At the same time, however, Dalton proposed spending at least $44 million on three new state prisons, a 600 percent increase in capital expenditures on prisons compared with the last budget.

Dalton's total budget appears to call for a 25 percent increase in state spending over the 1978-80 stated total of $9.2 billion. State officials warned the percentage was misleadingly high because of recent changes in the way expenditures are calculated.

The speech, which was largely devoted to a recitation of figures and adminisitrative detail, evoked polite applause from the Democrat-domnated legislature, many of whose members still resent Dalton's active participation in last year's election campaign. Reactions were predictably divided along political lines.

"Pretty dull, wasn't it?" said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington).

"You notice John Dalton always uses words like 'suggest' or 'commend.' He rarely proposes anything and as usual, it was a speech totally devoid of leadership and imagination."

Republican Del. Vincent F. Callahan of Fairfax County praised the speech, "You can orate all you want, but I'd rather have substance than stule," he said.

Despite lingering Democratic anger, however, there were few indications today that the majority party would agree on an alternative agenda or programs distinct from those suggested by Dalton. Democrats said part of the problem was deep-seated philosophical disagreements among party members, who range from traditional conservatives to avowed liberals, as well as their desire to avoid prolonged political warfare with Dalton.

"We're not going to be partisan just for the sake of partisanship," said House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss Jr. of Norfolk.

Nonetheless, legislators on both sides of the aisle saw areas of major disagreement with Dalton's proposals.

Moss predicted that some form of gasoline tax increase -- which under Dalton's proposal would add about 3 cents a gallon to current retail prices -- would pass the legislature. Del. Archibald A. Campbell (D-Wythe), chairman of the House Finance Committee, which must approve all tax increases, said he was against the plan "at this time."

Campbell said he was not convinced that the state highway department was operating efficiently and scoffed at Dalton's contention that the department had not increased the size of its staff in the last 15 years.

"The highway department was always the core support of the old Byrd organization," Campbell said. "They've always had far more employes there than they needed."

Under the Dalton plan, the state would pay for 95 percent of the present and future debt incurred by Metro construction in Northern Virginia -- a figure he calculated at $24 million during the next two years.

Dalton has said he beleives his proposal will satisfy the federal requirement that Virginia provide a stable and reliable revenue source for Metro operating costs -- a point disputed by some legislators. Suburban lawmakers noted that the governor's plan only covers Metro's construction costs, leaving unresolved the question of state aid to pay a portion of the transit system's operating deficits. Under current projections, the deficit for the Virginia suburbs is expected to climb to $38 million in fiscal 1981.

At a meeting of the Northern Virginia Transportaion Commision last Thursday, State Sen. Adelard Brault of Fairfax said he had talked to Dalton that day about the governor's transportation proposal. "The governor recognizes -- and said to me no more than four hours ago -- that this package does not satisfy the [stable and reliable] requirements of" federal legislation, Brault said.

Dalton's budget would provide about $10 million annually to cover Metro debt. A number of lawmakers suggested today they may propose an additional local sales tax increase to cover the rest of the deficit.

Sen. Joseph V. Gartian Jr. (D.-Fairfax) voiced considerable skepticism over Dalton's speech complaining that the Republican governor "was light on details" particularly concerning Metro funding.

"I want to know just what we'll get out of the gas tax," Gartlan said. He also questioned the tax formula itself, noting that rising gasoline prices could "reap so much money that the highway department will be drowning in it." The legislature mightwant to put a cap on the amount the tax can raise he suggested.

Dalton put his education budget toal at $2.2 billion, a two-year increase of 12.5 percent that would be considerably below an inflation rate that most analysts expect to exceed 15 percent. Dalton cited declining pupil enrollments to justify the cut in real dollars.

But fellow Republican Callahan, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which overseas the budget noted that the Department of Education had asked for about $300 million more than Dalton's request. "We'll take a close look at it and I suspect we'll add some more for education," Callahan said.

Dalton will also face a fight on his plan to build new prisons. Appropriations Committee member Frank M. Slayton (D-Halifax) called the governor's approach " a narrow point of view that doesn't offer any solution other than locking people up without providing any promise of rehabilitation."

To Dalton's address revealed his philosophy of government by its omission as much as by what it included.

There was virtually no mention of social welfare and health programs, even though individual and family services make up about 30 percent of total state expenditures -- more than $2.8 billion.

In discussing the need to increase highway funding, Dalton made no mention of increasing truck taxes despite studies suggesting Virginia's trucking industry is not paying its share for road maintenance. An aide had previously indicated that Dalton intends to avoid a confrontation with the industry, some members of which were major financial contributors to his election campaign three years ago.

The governor also did not discuss efforts to repeal the 4 percent sales tax on food, although he warned the legislators "that further significant reductions in [citizens'] tax burden can only be achieved at the expense of existing government services."

Dalton said he would not endorse a proposed state constitutional amendment placing a ceiling on spending, contending the state's record of frugality made such an amendment unnecessary. He suggested the legislators might wish to adopt an amendment requiring two-thirds approval of both houses for any new tax increase -- a proposal that ironically could make his gasoline tax plan harder to enact.

Today's opening session attracted lobbyists, family members and onlookers who jammed the Capitol hallways designed by Thomas Jefferson. Relatives took plenty of photographs, particularly of the freshmen delegates and senators.

Sen. Eva F. Scott (R-Amella) was at the center of a crush of photographers who wanted to watch her take her seat as the first woman ever elected to the Virginia Senate.

But if Eva Scott was a new sight in the Senate, the women standing outside the Capitol in silent vigil today were not. They were supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment, back in Richmond for the eighth year in a row to try to get the legislature to ratify the constitutional amendment banning sex discrimination.