Snow came early and heavily this year. Five feet of it by Thanksgiving provided a perfect setting for the various governors and state officials who assembled from around the nation for an annual meeting here: a chance to ski in the matchless beauty of the high Sierras or, depending on time and personal inclination, a chance to try their luck in the casinos along the lake.

The officials who form the Council of State Governments have every reason to enjoy a pre-Christmas getaway in such surroundings. In the last few years, they, not their federal counterparts in Washington, have demonstrated capacity for effective government.

In Washington, the record has been one of governmental chaos and gridlock, as exemplified by soaring federal budget deficits and failure even to agree on extending permanently the federal-debt level so the United States can continue to pay its bills and meet its obligations. In the states, the record has been one of efficiency and tackling hard problems.

Historically high state deficits have been turned into surpluses. Taxes have been raised, even in the face of recession; educational programs have been strengthened and curricula changed so the next generation of Americans will be better able to compete in the tougher global economy of the 1980s and beyond. Overall, in personnel and governmental performance, the quality of our statehouses and state legislatures has notably improved. The same cannot be said of Washington.

Despite this, the message these political leaders received here was a hard one: that their most difficult challenges lie ahead. Given the scale of problems they face and changing conditions fundamentally affecting state governments, they could well look back on this resort getaway as a welcome pause before the biggest battle yet.

The portrait drawn for them by experts in government, academia and private industry plus their own annual assessment of the "state of the states" was of even tougher times ahead. These assessments suggest that for years to come the states will find themselves in a "fiscal vise." They also suggest:

*That the threat of increasing foreign competition will continue, further affecting the competitive ability of basic U.S. industries.

*That the combination of historically high trade deficit, which has made the United States a debtor nation for the first time since 1914, and the equally historically high domestic budget deficits will further drastically reduce assistance they can expect from Washington -- and place greater demands on them for public services from local jurisdictions in their respective states.

*That prospects for real deficit reduction remain at best highly uncertain.

*That passage of tax-reform legislation in Washington could add to their problems by increasing the federal deficit, making it even more difficult to obtain necessary funds and mandating Draconian cuts in essential services for their citizens.

Virginia's departing Gov. Charles S. Robb, this year's council president, stitched these threads and found that they add up to "a revolution" that "has recently occurred in America."

Robb, a Democratic moderate whose political success in Virginia has placed him among the potential 1988 presidential candidates, defined that "revolution" as being over the battle of the budget in Washington. "I believe the consequences will change the course of government in this country," he said. As he put it:

"In short, the federal government, once the source of financial support and the impetus for social change, is in retreat. Just as the Great Depression brought the federal government into the center of American life, the deficit has diminished federal influence in improving our way of life."

Robb made these predictions:

"First, the shift in responsibilities from Washington will continue regardless of which party is in power. I don't know if the decision to let deficits soar in the early '80s was part of an undercover plan to reorder the nation's government. But plan or no plan, the arithmetic now leaves the administration and the Congress with no choice but to unload substantial responsibilities. For the rest of the decade, decisions will be more fiscal than political and the tide won't be easily turned even with a general tax increase.

"Second, states should prepare for the possibility that federal funding, with the exception of income-support programs, may be completely shut off . . . . By the end of the century, if not before, it is not farfetched to project that the federal government will be responsible for the national defense, the national debt, Social Security and income-maintenance programs -- and little else. If such steps were taken today, it would mean an annual loss of more than $35 billion to state and local government. And beyond the Beltway, that's a lot of bucks."

His solution is the sensible one of urging President Reagan to convene a domestic summit, composed of the administration and bipartisan leaders of Congress and state and local governments "that not only determines how we deal with the deficit but who address America's domestic agenda."

Something like that had better be done. You don't have to come to Lake Tahoe and hear all of this to conclude that we've had enough reckless gambling with our lives and futures to keep continuing down that dangerous slope.