Kevin Wilson: PNT managing editor
Editor’s Note: U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) has been at the forefront of the recent national energy bill and the local effort to save Cannon Air Force Base. Domenici took time Tuesday afternoon to talk about those issues and how a coffee shop dare eventually landed him in the Senate.
Q: The energy bill was passed through both houses of Congress last week, and you’re in Portales to celebrate with Abengoa’s local plant, which benefits from increased ethanol mandates. What made the difference getting this bill passed, as opposed to the previous two bills?
A: We didn’t have any ferocious opposition from anyone. America got in a bigger crisis each year. We are not going to fix the gasoline prices tomorrow. The bigger problem for our economy is the shortage of natural gas and the cost of natural gas, so we did something about it.
Q: How could the bill have been better?
A: I think Sen. (Jeff) Bingaman would say he didn’t get as many renewables, like wind, as he would have like. I think renewables got a very fair shake — wind, geothermal, biomass, solar — they’re not going to make up a great part of the solution. But Americans are demanding a solution there, so we did that.
We are committed to use our biggest fuel source, which is coal. We know we can’t use it unless it’s drastically cleaned up. We have to take the carbon out of it, which is the thing that pollutes. This bill promotes clean coal, including decarbonization. I think we could have made that program stronger.
Q: The energy bill does little to address mandated increases in car mileage. What keeps that aspect out of an energy bill?
A: I think it’s so tough to tell Americans they’ve got to buy smaller cars. We truly did give a big boost to hybrids and high mileage cars. You buy one, you get a very large tax credit — $3,500.
Q: What’s the bill’s best aspect nationally? How about for New Mexico?
A: For the nation, it’s so hard to pick. It would be fair to say three things nationally — a real renewed emphasis on renewable energy, a rebirth of nuclear power, and a real possibility we will not have natural gas shortages or rising costs.
For New Mexico, there are many, one of which is ethanol. Rural New Mexico will benefit immensely.
Q: At the end of your words during the Abengoa open house, you spoke about efforts to prevent the closure of Cannon Air Force Base. Where do you feel those efforts are with only a few weeks left?
A: I feel we’re going to win. The reason the feeling gets stronger … is the (rationale) for attacking (the Department of Defense’s reasoning) gets clearer and more direct.
Two are really pronounced. One is the lack of authenticity, the doubt that has been created in the savings that will occur. And one of the reasons we’re doing this is to save money. We cannot get from the defense department the detailed justification for the $2.7 billion (savings estimated from closing CAFB).
The second one is also a number. They’re required to take into account the economic loss to the community. We think they’ve got that one wrong. They think it’s a 20 percent loss. We think it’s 30.
Q: Another local issue that has taken the national landscape is the methamphetamine problem. You and other state representatives have spoke of the Combat Meth Act of 2005. How has the landscape changed on meth during your Senate career?
A: Oh, my. Meth was not even in the atmosphere. It’s an epidemic now. It’s so easy to do and it can be done anywhere by almost anybody. Even the federal government is getting involved in a local problem. I don’t know how many of these we can buck up to the federal government, but this is one of them.
Q: The district attorney’s office has programs it intends to put in place locally, but there’s still the issue of meth from other states and other countries. How much responsibility belongs on each level — local, state and federal?
A: Almost all crime, historically in our country, has been a state problem. When we have meth, the problem is commodities. It’s not a person traveling back and forth, it’s the meth. Whatever the federal government can do to limit movement of the products, we’ve got to do that. Second, if we can lend the law enforcement strength that we’ve got to help the local entities, then we’ve got to do that. But still, the investigation, arresting and convicting has got to be up to the state.
Q: Between the Abengoa event and this interview, you got a chance to tour the new communications building at Eastern New Mexico University. What were your thoughts?
A: It was really a wonderful thing to get briefed by the president on what this university does. It is so astounding. The professors are here to teach people, not to write papers. The student body is very ethnically balanced. Most people don’t understand the job this university does.
They have some areas of national specialty. They’re growing a little bit, and most universities have not been. They get by with very little, but I’m very grateful that in their field of excellence they’re going to have this center, as modern as you can get.
I asked how many (communications) students they had. (President Gamble) said 150. I told him you’ll have 300 in a few years.
Q: How did you first break in to government?
A: My first political race was for a city council position in Albuquerque, and that was about 42 years ago. I wasn’t planning to do that. I was a lawyer, had a large family. Five friends took me to coffee. I didn’t know it, but they were delivering me an ultimatum. It was, “Run for office or quit complaining.” About 10 days later, I told them I’d do it. They decided I was wrong, even though they had talked me into it. They got a bigger group and said, “Don’t do it.” I said, “It’s too late. You’ve talked me into it and I’m going to get elected.” I got elected. Six years, four months from that dare, I walked into the Senate.
Q: How has the political climate changed since you arrived on that dare?
A: First off, it’s much more partisan. There was terrific collegiality among senators in my earlier days. It’s much more acrimonious and aggressive, almost to the extent of being personal, than it was. It’s become much more red-line and much more divisive. People don’t create divisive issues. The issues are divisive.