By JOSEPH SPECTOR
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY - From 1985 through 2004, it was a state Capitol tradition: April 1 would pass, and the state budget was not approved.
In 2004, the budget went unresolved until Aug. 11, the latest in state history. In 2010, the record was almost surpassed: The budget was adopted Aug. 3.
But the 20-year symbol of the state's dysfunction -- its inability to meet its most fundamental deadline of an on-time budget -- may become a relic, something to tell the kids about.
After two consecutive years of on-time budgets under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, veteran budget watchers are starting to believe that the era of the late budget in New York has ended.
"If you have a change of players, anything is possible. But it's not likely you'll see late budgets again," said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York City-based Democratic strategist.
There are several reasons for the optimism. Cuomo has paved a path that combines the constitutional powers of the governor's office, the bully pulpit and his popularity to pressure lawmakers to get a deal on time since he took office last year.
But perhaps more important is a twist in state law that was essentially invented by then-Gov. David Paterson in 2010. He forced lawmakers after the April 1 deadline to either accept his budget or face a government shutdown.
The move has had remarkable influence on the budget process, political experts said.
"The budget extenders changed the nature of the game," said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College in Manhattan.
"It removed the incentive on the part of the Legislature to delay the budget. The incentive isn't there -- and in fact, the punishment is there."
Delay was often viewed as a major negotiating tool for lawmakers and the governor. Wait long enough and your opponents get antsy or they want to go on summer vacation. Then they'll fold or strike a deal.
But the power of the budget extender gives the governor a hammer to get a deal and a hard deadline to get one by.
Grappling with a budget stalemate in June 2010, Paterson realized he could include in his weekly budget extenders - historically passed pro forma by the Legislature to keep government paying its bills until a deal was struck - an actual spending plan for the fiscal year.
One week, he put in his proposed health-care cuts. Another week he dropped in higher cigarette taxes. Finally, he essentially dumped his whole budget proposal into an extender - daring lawmakers to either agree to his demands, shut down government or reach a compromise.
They choose compromise.
Paterson, in a radio interview Wednesday, called his budget extender strategy "serendipitous." He said even his own staff didn't know at first if the move was legal.
When they told him they believed it was, "They said, 'Do you want to do it? And I said, 'Let's do it,'" he recalled.
So far, lawmakers haven't challenged it.
Governors have also benefited from a state Court of Appeals decision in 2004 that said lawmakers couldn't change language in budget bills without the governor's approval.
In a state with an already strong governor form of government, the court case -- and a public referendum in 2004 that upheld the governor's authority -- added another arrow to the governor's quiver.
Last year, as he sought to get his first on-time budget, Cuomo acknowledged the power of the extender. He said that historically "it was Groundhog Day" with the budget process.
Until the three sides - the leaders of the Senate and Assembly and the governor - agreed to break the stalemate, the budget slog would go on and on.
"There's a new option," Cuomo said in March 2011, just days before a deal was reached.
"It's the three parties agree or they agree to disagree in a very dramatic fashion, which is: The governor does an extender budget and if they really disagree, they shut down the government."
He added, "Shut down the government and then let's take the case to the people, and I'm confident in taking the case to the people."
Cuomo had a 69 percent job approval rating in a Siena College poll last month. The state Assembly's approval rating was 37 percent.
Political experts said Cuomo's popularity and political skill coupled with the power of the budget extender makes a late state budget unlikely - at least under his watch.
"With Andrew Cuomo, he's made it sort of a touchstone," said Maurice Carroll, a Quinnipiac University pollster. "So I think as long as Cuomo is governor, you're going to get on-time budgets."
But Carroll, a former Capitol reporter dating back to the mid-1970s, said it's difficult to predict whether late budgets are a thing of the past. In particular, the calendar works against the governor and the Legislature, he said.
New York is the only state in the nation with an April 1 budget deadline. Most states start their fiscal years on July 1.
Governors propose their budgets in mid-January, so the April 1 deadline makes for a tight schedule, no matter who the governor is, Carroll said.
"The calendar makes it almost inevitable that you're going to have a late one every now and then," Carroll said.
There's also the argument often used at the Capitol that it's better to have a good budget rather than an on-time one. And Cuomo even made that case some this year as the budget deadline loomed.
Nonetheless, with an on-time-budget streak on the books - a first since 2005 and 2006 and only the second time since the early 1980s - it would be difficult for lawmakers and the governor to go back to the old ways, Sheinkopf said.
"It's not in the interest of anybody because the public now understands that late budgets are not good things and they are not going to tolerate it," he said.
By JOSEPH SPECTOR