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Pete Domenici returning to NM, will be advisor to State Land Office

Former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici joins in a conversation about public policy during the 2009 Domenici Conference at NMSU. (File: Courtesy of NMSU)

Former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici joins in a conversation about public policy during the 2009 Domenici Conference at NMSU. (File: Courtesy of NMSU)

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, a powerhouse of modern New Mexico politics, is moving back to New Mexico from Washington, D.C., and plans to take on a new role as an adviser to state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn.

Domenici, 84, who held several influential committee posts during his 36-year tenure in the U.S. Senate and was given the nickname “St. Pete” for his ability to help the state, announced Wednesday he and his wife, Nancy, will be returning permanently to New Mexico in mid-January.

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The Republican former senator said he is looking forward to returning to Albuquerque, where he grew up and previously held the job of chairman of the city commission.

“I haven’t had a chance in more than 40 years to just enjoy New Mexico,” Domenici told the Journal.

Once back in the state, Domenici will join the State Land Office as a senior adviser to Dunn, a first-term Republican.

In the role, Domenici will provide advice on energy, natural resource and other policy issues, and will help push a State Land Office proposal to create a new permanent fund for early childhood education.

The permanent fund proposal, one of several plans in the mix to increase funding for early education, was unveiled by Dunn in August. It hinges on leasing subsurface mineral acreage that the federal government would transfer to New Mexico, a concept that conservation and wildlife groups oppose.

In a Wednesday interview, Domenici described the initiative as a “hard job” – it would require approval from both Congress and the state Legislature – but called early childhood education a worthy endeavor.

He said Dunn approached him about the advisory role and added that he doesn’t expect it to be a full-time position. A spokeswoman for the State Land Office said Wednesday details about Domenici’s role – including whether he will receive a salary or any other type of compensation – are still being determined.

However, Domenici did say he plans to accompany Dunn to an American Legislative Exchange Council summit in Washington, D.C., later this week. Both men are scheduled to speak at the summit, according to the group’s website.

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In a statement released Wednesday, Dunn said the State Land Office will benefit from Domenici’s expertise.

“His experience in political office overseeing the matters of energy and natural resources provides great guidance to the Land Office,” Dunn said. “Senator Domenici will be a key adviser on natural resource matters – he is a wonderful asset to my administration.”

Domenici was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972 and served through 2008. He was chairman of both the powerful Senate Committee on the Budget and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources during his congressional tenure.

Domenici announced in 2007 that he had a progressive brain disease called frontotemporal lobar degeneration, a rare form of dementia, and did not seek re-election in 2008, a decision that led to a shake-up in New Mexico politics. However, Domenici questioned the diagnosis in subsequent years and said in a Wednesday interview that doctors have told him his health is in decent shape.

He also said he was excited about the new challenge, pointing out that he previously worked with Dunn’s late father, Aubrey Dunn Sr., who served as chairman of the New Mexico Senate Finance Committee.

“I look forward to working with the land commissioner on the bill he has prepared regarding early childhood education and the assurance of funding for this initiative, as well as assisting the land commissioner in his overall obligation and commitment to education funding for New Mexicans,” Domenici said in a statement.

Under Dunn’s plan, millions of acres of federally owned minerals that are beneath private land would be shifted to state control. The State Land Office could then lease them out – for purposes that would likely include oil and gas drilling – and funnel the revenue it generates into the proposed new permanent fund. Some revenue could also be returned to the federal government for a set time period.

Currently, the State Land Office manages more than 9 million acres of state trust land around New Mexico, with money derived from energy industry and mining leases flowing into a $14.9 billion state permanent fund.

Meanwhile, one of Domenici’s children, Pete Domenici Jr., is an Albuquerque attorney whose firm handles cases dealing with natural resources law, including the adjudication of water rights. It was unclear Wednesday how the State Land Office planned to handle potential conflicts of interest stemming from the younger Domenici’s job.

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