He’s the man with the $168 billion plan. After two decades crunching budget numbers at the Capitol, state Budget Director Robert Mujica is facing what he called the state’s most challenging budget in years. He would know. Mujica served as secretary to the state Senate Finance Committee for 19 years with the Republican majority, and he’s held practically every budget-related job in the upper echelons of state government. His expertise was so valuable that Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached across the aisle to pull him into the executive chamber.
City & State’s Frank G. Runyeon spoke with the state’s numbers maestro who also happens to be, arguably, the most powerful Latino in state government.
C&S: How do you describe your work in layman’s terms to people outside Albany?
RM: My job is basically to implement the governor’s vision through the budget. So my job is to put together a budget that balances the governor’s progressive priorities, maintains fiscal discipline and can fulfill the governor’s priorities through the budget, and the budget is basically a statement of the governor’s priorities. That’s really what I say. It’s hard to get it all in.
C&S: You have tons of public finance experience at this point. Given your career and your current job, how much do you love spreadsheets?
RM: (laughs) In this job I have now, I don’t actually have to look at the spreadsheets as much as I used to. But I spent 20 years looking at them. … The issue is, the numbers don’t lie. And I think that’s the beauty of the budget to a certain degree. While there are facets that are more complicated and somewhat ambiguous, the numbers in the end tell the truth. I think that’s part of the puzzle of putting the budget together. In the end, the budget has to balance. It has to be fiscally responsible. And in the end, you end up with a product that clearly states what the priorities are. And I think that’s what’s attractive to the budget as to some other forms of policymaking.
C&S: What’s the most exciting part of the job for you?
RM: I think in the end getting the budget done and knowing that you have a balance here where you achieve the governor’s priorities here and the legislature all voted for it and you have a product that really can serve New Yorkers for the whole year. It’s like putting together a $160 billion deal every year. So putting that together every year, the amount of hours, manpower, people that have to make decisions going into it and at the end of the day everyone can then leave with and bring back to their constituents, that’s probably the most satisfying.
C&S: Can you tell me a bit about your family background? You are Ecuadorean, is that correct?
RM: No! The internet’s a funny thing, right? There’s this thing on the internet which my mother reminds me, “Can you call and tell them to fix that?” … No, my parents are Puerto Rican, both born in Puerto Rico. They were actually born in the same town in Puerto Rico, however, they didn’t meet until they came to New York. So I was born in Williamsburg … I spent a lot of time in Brooklyn, spent a lot of time in the Bronx, so I spent my time in some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. Growing up in the South Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s when it was a very different place than it is now, and then also growing up in Staten Island, which is arguably a very, very different borough.
C&S: How much of an impact on your career has your Latino identity had? In what way does it inform your work?
RM: You know, we’re all shaped by our backgrounds, our history, where we come from. Those things color how I look at the budget itself. You have New York, probably one of the most diverse states in the country, if not the most diverse. You have the people on every part of the economic spectrum and that balance creates the beauty of New York but also the challenges. I think that my background as a result of how I grew up and growing up Puerto Rican in New York reflects that diversity and also enables me to look at things from all of those perspectives.
C&S: Being that your parents are from Puerto Rico, do you still have family there?
RM: Yes. … I was with the governor when he was on the first plane to land in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit. And the devastation there is personal, because I spent a lot of my summers there and my grandfather and grandmother both live there (in Arecibo). My grandfather, we brought him back within two to three weeks after the hurricane because you still don’t have power there. But being able to help there was important.
C&S: Why did you go into government work?
RM: After graduate school, I wanted to work in government because government, especially the states, was a place where you could actually get something done. And while Washington was sometimes not getting results, the state is a place where you can actually see what you can do and actually feel it and have it happen quickly. And that was my sense when I got here. … At the state level, I think you’re actually able to get something accomplished, get it through the legislature, implement a policy administratively and then actually makes sure you actually get it done and then you get to see the results and the impact on the people. I think that’s an exciting thing to see.
C&S: The state budget is coming into crunch time, so can you give us a glimpse of what you’re keeping your eye on?
RM: The next six weeks is the end of it. Probably in the next two weeks, things get going. We’ve put together a budget that’s balanced and we think it’s a good blueprint for the final budget and getting something done. The unknowns are what concerns me and a lot of it is coming from Washington. The federal unknowns are the things that concern me the most because I can’t control for those things. We try our best. The governor has done a great job of maintaining fiscal discipline, which puts us in a position to be able to deal with most things, but you can’t deal with a federal government that is so particularly hostile towards New York. So that is probably the biggest challenge that we have.
C&S: During the upcoming budget negotiations with the state Legislature, what’s the sticky wicket, if there is one?
RM: It’s the spending number overall. We will figure out how to prioritize the amount of the money that we have. It’s not a particular policy issue. The policy issues get resolved every year. It’s really how much we’re going to spend. The easy part of that is the governor has put in place the 2 percent spending number. That I think is critical, but once you know what that is, then it’s just a matter of prioritizing among what you have. But there’s always a push and a desire to want to spend more. But unlike in Washington, we have to propose a balanced budget and we have to enact a balanced budget. So I think for me, the hardest part and also the biggest challenge is figuring out how to fund all the needs and still stay within both our revenue numbers and making sure our revenues actually come in.
C&S: How busy are you through all this?
RM: It is all the time. It doesn’t stop. There are always different pieces. We have a great team here, but there is a lot going on all the time. There’s always a lot of decision points, but in the end it’s very rewarding.
C&S: How many hours a day do you work?
RM: More than eight hours a day.
C&S: Does that mean nine hours a day? Twelve hours a day?
RM: At least 12. At least 12. Twelve is a short day. … These are jobs that require an enormous amount of investment and time. To do it right, you need to be focused on it all the time.
C&S: Do you have any aspirations for elected office?
RM: I do not. It’s not what I do. I’ve become relatively knowledgeable in budgeting here in both public finance and finance generally. And public office is a different skill set, which is not something I choose to want to participate in.
C&S: There’s limited information out there about who you are as a person. What do people not know about Robert Mujica?
RM: I’m a relatively private person ...
C&S: For instance, now we know your parents are from Puerto Rico, not Ecuador. So, that’s good. What else?
RM: When I’m not here I like to spend my time in the country and walking in the woods. That’s probably one of the things that helps me clear my head the most. ... I spend some time in Columbia County. That is my go-to place when I can escape from Albany.
C&S: Any other particular hobbies?
RM: I run. I’m a runner. I’ve run a few marathons. So that’s probably something people don’t know. I did the New York City Marathon. Not this year, but the year before. I did OK, not as well as I would have liked to. I didn’t train as much as I should have.
C&S: Are you going to take another crack at it?
RM: Yes. (laughs) Once I can work less than 12 hours a day and train, I will.