AFTER TWO decades of soliciting federal grants, govenors and mayors are becoming wary. The federal gift horse, they have learned, is a ponderous beast dragging behind him a chain of encumbrances.

The most recent evidence of this reevaluation is the decision of Virginia's Gov. John Dalton to refuse federal money under the developmental disabilities program for certain retarded and disabled persons. Among the reasons cited by the governor were requirements that states establish elaborate evaluation systems, and find jobs with equal pay and benefits for personnel laid of as the result of program efforts to move institutionalized persons back into the community. These provisions are not new, and the governor's claims with respect to their potential cost are questionable. But his action should draw attention to a growing problem in our federal system.

When the federal government provides money to states and localities it must also try to see that the money is used efficiently for the purposes intended. But there are some devices employed in federal statutes and regulations that deserve closer scrutiny. One is the practice of specifying not only the general purpose of a program but the exact method of its operation without regard to the necessity and suitability of each minute requirement in each and every case. Day care, bilingual education and nursinghome regulations are frequently cited examples of this kind of overkill.

Still more galling to states and localities are federal commands with no federal dollars to back them up. The classic example of this kind is the federal regulation requiring not just that some, but rather all federally aided mass transit systems (including even local bus systems in small towns) be retrofitted to provide elevators and wheelchair lifts for the handicapped. Estimates of the potential cost to localities range to $20 billion, despite the uncertain benefit of this sort of transportation to many of the handicapped.

Not all of the many claims of heavy-handed federal regulation are of equal merit, and all of the regulations involved will be defended as necessary by well-meaning advocates. While some requirements are the work of overzealous bureaucrats, most spring directly from congressional statutes. Many of the most burdensome rules were added to federal laws at the behest of special interest groups with little or no public hearing or debate. Almost all passed into law with no estimation of their likely costs.

Congress already requires the Congressional Budget Office to prepare an estimate of the federal cost of all reported legislation prior to passage. Why not extend that same good rule to the likely costs for state and local governments as well?