The cynics are being proved right about one thing, at least. The federalism initiative that President Reagan made the centerpiece of his State of the Union address seems to be going nowhere.

Negotiations between the White House and the governors over a proposed swap, in which the states would take over food stamps and welfare while the federal government took all of Medicaid, have reached an impasse. Work on the other half of the Reagan proposal--plans for a turnback of dozens of federal programs and the tax sources to support them--is far behind schedule. Congressional action in 1982, which always looked chancy, now is unlikely.

As the magazine published by the National Conference of State Legislatures notes, the states may do well to hold the authority they now have. There are a number of major bills pending in Congress --some with administration support-- that would extend federal legislative and regulatory authority and preempt state initiatives in these fields.

All of this may seem of no great matter in a time of severe recession and threats to peace. But it strikes me as regrettable that this president, like all his predecessors back to and including Richard Nixon, is losing the opportunity he might have had to sort out the jumble of responsibilities that have accumulated in Washington and transfer some of them to states and localities.

The recognition of that lost opportunity lends a bittersweet quality to two reports that crossed the desk last week. One, published by the National Governors Association, cites examples of programs that are under way in many states to spur technological innovation and productivity growth. That effort has been encouraged by conferences held the last two years, under NGA auspices, by a task force headed by two of the brightest of the retiring governors, Michigan's William G. Milliken (R) and California's Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. (D).

From Georgia's Advanced Technology Entrepreneur Center to Arizona's Center for Engineering Excellence, Brown's survey found at least 88 separate initiatives under way with state leadership. Many involve public-private partnerships.

This is the kind of creativity the Reagan initiative was designed to capture and to spur in a wide variety of domestic program areas.

The second survey, published in State Government quarterly, confirmed my subjective view that there is more and more qualified leadership to tap at the state level. The survey of the background and training of state agency heads was reported by professors F. Ted Hebert of the University of Oklahoma and Deil S. Wright of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. It clearly demonstrates the growing professionalism of state government:

The agency heads in 1978 were substantially younger, better educated and more professionally qualified than were their predecessors in a series of similar surveys going back to 1964.

To take a few of the 1964 and 1978 comparisons, the proportion of agency heads with less than a college degree dropped from 34 to 11 percent. Those with graduate degrees rose from 40 percent to 58 percent.

1 The tradition of career service is growing at the state level. About half the agency heads began work in state government before they were 30, and more than half reached the top of their agency before they were 50, most often by career- line promotion within their own agency or from another agency in the same state. The numbers of women and minorities among them, while still small, are growing.

This does not guarantee their efficiency or sensitivity, of course. As Hebert and Wright say, "no absolute answer can be given" to the question of whether "the states (are) ready to assume greater responsibility. . . . But it is certain that some of the arguments of an earlier day supporting transfer of functions to the federal government--arguments that praised the representativeness and professional character of federal administrators--may eventually be undercut by trends" under way in the states.

My own, less cautious judgment is that the public is ahead of the politicians on this question. Voters understand (especially at tax time) the costs of overload on the federal bureaucracy. Some day the issue will be grasped, not fumbled, by a president, to his political benefit.