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SANTA FE — State Sen. Aubrey Dunn was a master tactician and understood state finances perhaps better than anyone else ever has. He died last week at 84.
Dunn was business manager and part owner of the Alamogordo Daily News. He also had an apple orchard at High Rolls. At the Legislature he preferred to call himself an apple farmer likely because that was safer than saying he was in the newspaper business.
Aubrey was a Democrat but if he were in the Legislature today, he’d probably be a Republican. It was shortly after his 1980 resignation from the Legislature that Democrats in the Southeastern part of the state started changing their registration to Republican or getting beaten by Republicans.
Dunn was conservative. He thought like a business manager — or an apple grower.
During the period he reigned as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Democrats held a good 30 out of the 42 seats in the Senate.
In the House, Republicans and conservative Democrats had formed a conservative coalition to take control. In the Senate that wasn’t necessary since most Democrats already were conservative and Dunn was in control of the money.
The battle back then was not so much Democrats vs. Republicans as it was House vs. Senate. By law, the House wrote the state’s general appropriation act, which then went to the Senate.
It was then up to Dunn to outmaneuver the House. He always found a way and it never was the same.
Dunn almost didn’t get the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee.
As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, he had wielded so much power that Senate leaders worried he would give too much of the budget to public schools.
Aubrey had presided over passage of the state’s first public school equalization distribution.
At that time, the state was enjoying an oil boom at the time so there was money to bring most schools up to a median without affecting the schools that had a high expenditure per child.
The better off districts, of course, were in the oil patch and their senators were not pleased with Dunn. But he managed to convince them that his objective was fairness and that fairness was good.
Most senators ended up being pleased with Dunn’s Senate finance leadership. Back then, the House didn’t try to get the appropriation bill to the Senate by mid-session. House leaders waited as long as they could to send the bill to the Senate so Dunn would have as little time as possible to outmaneuver them.
The Senate Finance Committee always was left with very little time to consider the massive bill. That meant night sessions that often lasted well into the morning.
Dunn endeared himself to many lobbyists when he looked over the crowd at the beginning of a night session and enumerated those issues that would not be addressed that evening. Those lobbyists could get a good night’s sleep.
After the committee session, Dunn often would retire to his office with top lieutenants to plan strategy.
The following morning a swarm of lobbyists would be waiting for him to enter the building hopeful they could get a nugget of information or impart information to him. Occasionally he would tell one or two to come see him after a while.
Then there was the big pork barrel bill, which Dunn aptly renamed the Christmas Tree Bill. Back then, there were no agreements about everyone getting a present or how many presents the governor would receive.
The bill would reach the floor of the Senate late on the final morning of the session.
As lawmakers were frantically searching through the many pages in the bill, Dunn would caution that there wasn’t time to look for their projects. There only was time to vote for passage of the bill.
Nancy Pelosi was not the first person to think of that maneuver.