Robert Mujica, the money man in Albany, on congestion pricing in the state budget

Robert Mujica with Andrew Cuomo
Robert Mujica with Andrew Cuomo
Darren McGee/Office of the Governor
Robert Mujica speaks during a budget meeting on the impact of full state and local tax deductibility.

Robert Mujica, the money man in Albany, on congestion pricing in the state budget

The state budget director says the MTA will factor into Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s upcoming budget updates.
February 13, 2019

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo releases amendments to his proposed state budget this week, state Budget Director Robert Mujica says that the governor will include more details about his plans to reform the governance of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. However, both critics and supporters of Cuomo’s congestion pricing proposal will have to wait before the governor puts down in writing exactly how he wants it to work in practice. In a Feb. 13 interview with City & State, Mujica explained why some – but not all – of the details of both proposals will be included in the upcoming 30-day amendments – and how some lawmakers’ concerns might be better addressed after the April 1 state budget deadline.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How will the upcoming budget amendments address lawmakers’ concerns about congestion pricing and changing the governance of the MTA?

What we put in the budget amendments or in the budget is only what’s going to be in the statute. As a general rule, we don’t put certain things in the statutes. For example, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority is allowed to toll bridges. Beyond that, statutes doesn’t say how much the toll is and the parameters of it. We’re starting to fill in some of those parameters but not all of that will be necessarily in the statute. We did not want to be overly prescriptive because we wanted to engage the Legislature.

Will the budget amendments include details on additional investments in outer-borough and suburban transit systems?

If the Legislature wants us to add more to the statute we’ll do that. Under the governor’s proposal, we have said that the money goes into a lock box for MTA capital. The MTA capital plan is then approved by the legislators, so you can’t spend one dollar of it until the Legislature approves the capital plan under the current structure. They have veto power under the current structure. They also have to appropriate the dollars for the next capital plan, which isn’t going to be advanced until next October. Now, what we would like to do with the members in both houses is identify what their concerns are in those capital plans going forward so that we can give assurances to the Legislature that we are going to address the concerns that they have in regard to the MTA, which are not related to the congestion pricing fee specifically.

The current congestion pricing proposal includes a provision that says revenue would have to be used for MTA capital programs. Do you see more specific language being added that would mandate how much would go to subways versus other transportation programs?

That is something we did for the for-hire vehicle charge last year. We specifically said where the money would go and then we also said some of the money would go to a fund to support outer borough investments. Conceivably, you could do the same thing here once we know what the needs are. You could say how much of the funding is going to go to New York City Transit versus anything else. So the short answer is yes, we could add more specifics there once we get from the members what they want going where based on what their needs are. We are having those conversations now with them. I anticipate all of their concerns will be addressed.

Gov. Cuomo has said he does not want to pass congestion pricing unless the governance of the MTA changes. Will details on that be a part of the upcoming amendments?

There will be some governance changes in the 30-day amendments. Some of this involves changing the governance structure – whether or not you’re going to add more members, maintain the vetoes (the New York City mayor and state Legislature have veto power over MTA capital plans). Is there going to be an individual who has a majority of the board or not, we’re talking to the legislators now about what they would be willing to do.

In the governor’s (Feb. 7) speech at the Association for a Better New York, the governor mentioned there are a couple of options. The speaker in the City Council is talking about the city taking it over. The governor talked about the Legislature, if they wanted to be in charge or the governor in charge. I think the point there is you need management and you need the money. On the management side what is the Legislature comfortable doing? I think we will color in some of that based on the conversations we’ve had most recently with the Legislature so you will see some changes there, but it’s not the final changes. You will see that in the final budget.

These are some big issues to deal with in just a few weeks. Is there enough time to do this before the April 1 budget deadline?

There is absolutely enough time. We’re negotiating a $175.2 billion budget. There are lots of complicated issues in the budget. This is one. This is a significant one, but there is absolutely enough time to negotiate. This has been around for a while. People understand it. The information is out there. We’re meeting with legislators. We definitely have enough time to get this done before April 1.

How does the budget process play out once the governor submits his budget amendments this week?

The 30-day amendments are when the governor can unilaterally make final changes to his executive budget. After that, however, the past practice has been, as part of the negotiations, there are many changes that the Legislature and the executive agree upon and those changes are then incorporated in the executive budget and resubmitted to the Legislature at the end. So this is not the final time that we could change the budget. It’s the final time that we could unilaterally change it and then the legislature has to accept it after that. That is what we expect to happen with congestion pricing and a lot of areas with the budget.

Sen. Leroy Comrie, who chairs a committee that oversees the MTA, has said there need to be guarantees in writing on transit improvements for the entire city before congestion pricing could pass. Lawmakers currently have veto power over MTA capital projects. But what if they lose that during the restructuring of the agency, wouldn’t they have less leverage to secure funding for their priority projects in the upcoming capital plan?

We’re not changing the veto power in the executive budget or in the 30-day amendments. I think the senator raises some good points and these are the points we’ve been hearing from other legislators as well. We will address those concerns. We understand the legislators want to have some sort of guarantee to know what the additional investments will be. There is a mechanism for that. The Legislature has review of the capital plan. They also have the appropriation review. There are funds that we appropriate to the MTA that the Legislature has to pass. Remember that nothing is getting turned on for two years.

Right now, there is a long runway for congestion pricing to get started so you need to start the infrastructure. There is some time to make sure that we address all of the legislators’ concerns, but you need to start the infrastructure and authorize the program now so that you can start collecting the revenue two years from now in order to fund the capital plan that includes the investments that the legislators want.

It’s expected that some of the $2.3 billion state revenue shortfall will be made up before the federal tax deadline to what extent do you see that happening and is this the new normal, that we’re not going to be able to tell state revenues accurately until the federal tax season ends?

There is a new normal here because this is the first year that everyone is seeing the impact of SALT. We do know that SALT is impacting the state negatively. We’ll see when we put out the budget modifications exactly what our revenue numbers are, but there is no way to expect that you are going to get all of that revenue back. The $2.3 billion for this year is gone. The question is what is going to happen next fiscal year? Will we get some of those revenues back? It’s possible that some of it is related to timing, but definitely not the majority of it.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State and its sister publication, New York Nonprofit Media.
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