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New Mexico First, conference are in need of a review

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By Harold Morgan

Probably the least known fact about the long career of Sen. Pete Domenici has to be that he did not hire me to be his press aide in 1989.

Instead of the knowledgeable New Mexican — me — Domenici hired Ari Fleischer, who knew Washington, D. C. A sound choice, I think. Fleischer went on to be press secretary for President George W. Bush.

Equally obscure is the story I wrote for the Albuquerque News in 1968 about the first city budget he presented as chairman of the Albuquerque City Commission.

Much later my kids played Little League baseball with a Domenici grandchild. Domenici attended the occasional game.

Domenici’s leadership of the Senate Budget Committee brought access to the committee’s economics staff, a smart, collegial group that provided insight on the national economy and New Mexico’s fit into the big picture.

In the 1980s Domenici and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, together with Gov. Bruce King, created the Joint Economic Development Initiative (JEDI). (Get it?) Santa Teresa with its border crossing was one focus.

As a matter of good management, two of Domenici’s policy legacies deserve a closer look.

First is New Mexico First. During the mid-1980s several groups were having conversations about the murky future facing New Mexico.

Domenici and Bingaman convened a task force with bipartisan leadership and consolidated the groups (some less than voluntarily). Much of the format was borrowed from the Arizona Town Halls.

The idea is that interested, caring citizens come together to discuss a topic and recommend solutions to problems, sort of a wisdom-of-crowds approach.

Each Town Hall included a background document of wildly varying quality.

However, in the Town Halls factions formed. People favored one part or another of the topic.

Allies were recruited to attend the Town Halls, turning them into organized political contests rather than people independently considering the chosen topic. To think that it should have been otherwise was perhaps naïve.

Town Hall discussions are forced to consensus by facilitators. Going to consensus robs nearly all substance from the recommendations. You get inspirations like “better align and coordinate strategic plan and initiatives.”

A few months ago a member of the organizing task force told me she’d not had contact with New Mexico First for decades, nor did she desire contact.

The Domenici Public Policy Conference is about the learning needed for “doing better at what we ought to do as citizens,” Domenici said in 2015 to begin the eighth annual gathering in Las Cruces.

The conference also is supposed to directly affect the state. The learning works; the direct effects, not much at all.
Operationally, the Domenici conference is straightforward. People talk. Usually they are prominent in their particular field. Often they are Domenici’s friends or colleagues from his Senate days.

The audience listens and, all hope, learns. The fee is modest. Students (and only students) ask questions. There is food. Sponsors are introduced.

We have learned. It is good to see that there are sane, talented people involved in the big decisions.

One example is Michael Hayden, former CIA director.

Another is Alice Rivlin, first director of the Congressional Budget Office, and a co-chair with Domenici of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force, a group that developed a straightforward and admirable federal spending and revenue plan. Rivlin presented the plan in Las Cruces.

The only local effect I can cite came from the 2015 presentation by former North Carolina Gov. James Hunt, who outlined his state’s successful development strategy that began in the 1960s. Follow-up research led to the idea of a public policy institute for New Mexico.

Domenici died Sept. 16, just hours before the 2017 conference started. The policy legacy lives, but needs work for the future.