AT THE START OF 2020, things were looking up for Robert Mujica ’05, director of the New York State Division of the Budget.
“The state was arguably in the best condition it had ever been in,” he said, with the financial freedom to consider exciting new policies. “And within four months you’re dealing with the pandemic of the century.”
His job changed in a heartbeat—and took on even more significance—as cases of COVID-19 grew exponentially, leading to a statewide pause in March.
“From a budgeting perspective, my first priority is making sure the government is functioning,” Mujica said. “At a time like this is when people need government the most. People are losing their jobs. Hospitals need money to operate. We need to get the PPE [personal protective equipment].”
“The first priority is making sure that we’re saving lives. You’re fighting something you don’t really understand and you’re making choices that will impact a lot of people,” he added.
The state posted steep revenue shortfalls, with unemployment higher than any time other than the Great Depression. Mujica began to worry about people “falling through the cracks.” And he didn’t have time for the slow, deliberative review that he would normally use to reach the right decisions.
“You can take six months to make a decision and make sure you’ve crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i,’ but in that time you have lost the ship,” he said. “Now you have to make decisions very fast. Time and delay actually can cost lives.”
So his team began working nearly daily to get the needed research done. “The same amount of analysis has to occur, just faster,” he said.
Mujica also brought his communication style to address the state’s sudden financial problems, delivering bad news without trying to sugarcoat “Early on we did our own analysis,” he said. It showed the state would probably be $10 billion in the red. By the end of April, that figure grew to more than $13 billion.
He warned that cuts would be coming if the state doesn’t receive substantial federal aid. Mujica said that being upfront was better than waiting months until he knew exactly what would happen.
“The key is to let people know what’s going on so it’s not a surprise,” he said.
“People want to know what’s going on. I think it’s better to give people an answer.” Even though it’s not the answer they want, he added.
Mujica sees the budget as a way to take care of people, making sure there are safety nets.
“The governor has entrusted me with this responsibility,” he said. “It’s something I don’t take lightly.”
He is now focusing on making the financial choices that can build up the economy again, while preparing for a possible second wave of COVID-19 cases.
“That’s what we’re focused on, so that if something happens, we are better positioned,” he said.