Domenici decision and lab cuts top 2007 news

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By Roger Snodgrass

Associated Press editors and news directors in New Mexico selected two stories with strong ties to Los Alamos among the state’s top 10 stories of the year.The number one story recognized the sudden sense of disorientation in the state that arose when Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. announced his decision not to run for re-election next year.Farther down the list, in eighth place, was the ongoing story about job cuts at New Mexico’s two nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia. Senator steps downWhile many parts of the state may lay claim to feeling most affected by the loss of the state’s senior Senator, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Los Alamos community can make an exceptionally strong case.It would be hard to overemphasize Domenici’s role over the decades in funding what is now a $2-billion-a-year nuclear weapons enterprise. From his influential positions as chairman and lately as ranking member of the Senate Energy and Water Development committee and the related appropriations subcommittee, he found federal dollars for his state in every form and shape.Along with its bread and butter federal contract, regarded as the economic engine of Northern New Mexico, Los Alamos can also thank Domenici for its $8 million annual school allotment, an endowment for the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation and a half-billion dollars in compensation for the ravages of the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000.His political dexterity and hard work in saving the day for the LANL budget was as surprisingly successful this year as it was in years past. A number of political observers have noted that the administration’s budget proposals for the energy department are routinely underestimated to allow for Domenici’s additions.Asked recently if he was going to leave a how-to manual behind, Domenici said, “No,” but quickly added that he expected his successor could do the job, depending on who that was going to be.The chain-reaction displacement of political roles that Domenici’s resignation has caused, is another dimension of this story.  After the national elections in November next year, only Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., will remain in his current seat in Congress. New Mexico’s three representatives, Heather Wilson (R) in District One, Steve Pearce (R) in District Two and Tom Udall (D) in District Three are now all running for Domenici’s job, as new aspirants vie for the congressional posts the incumbents will abandon.Domenici announced his resignation in the gymnasium of St. Mary’s School in Albuquerque on Oct. 4. 

Will there be more lay-offs?In mid-September, with waning hopes for a timely resolution of next year’s budget in Washington, Los Alamos National Laboratory began a supervised planning process in case workforce reductions should be required.“We believe the magnitude of the problem ranges from a best-case scenario flat budget to a budget cut by more than $350 million,” lab director Michael Anastasio wrote in a memo to employees at the time.Phase one of that process, designed to trim the workforce by 500-750 positions for next year, elicited 495 employees who volunteered to step down and accept a standard severance package in December. After an additional week of informational sessions and time to reconsider, the number of willing volunteers shrank to 430, according to the laboratory. In the first weeks of the New Year, LANL managers will first accept or reject each of those individual applications and then decide how, whether and to what extent it will be necessary to begin the next round, which would impose involuntary reductions.On Dec. 26, President Bush signed into law the consolidated appropriation bill that combined 11 remaining funding measures including a provision for the Department of Energy and national laboratories including LANL. The laboratory’s budget prospects appeared to improve significantly over the worst-case scenario, but uncertainties remained about how additional funds would be apportioned by the department.The administration’s budget proposal for next fiscal year will be presented in February.