Think New Mexico

_DSC9025Amidst the political slings and arrows of this particularly acrimonious year, a modest historical residence perches, facing the Roundhouse, as it has for almost 20 years–quietly percolating. It’s a unique kind of think tank. Inside, the small staff—with guidance from its board of directors—births ingenious possibilities buttressed with persistent, meticulous research. Field Director Othiamba Umi, New Mexico born and raised, wants to give back to this state that’s given him so much; “I commute from Albuquerque and it’s totally worth it!” Native Santa Fean Kristina Fisher, Associate Director, agrees: “We stand up on behalf of people who can’t be here” during the legislative session.

Think New Mexico is the brainchild of founder and Executive Director Fred Nathan, a self-described recovering lawyer. Previously, he was Special Counsel to Attorney General Tom Udall. “Tom’s legislative campaign included addressing our drunk-driving epidemic,” Fred says. In pursuit of a bill outlawing drive-up windows, “I staffed the task force, which was a Noah’s Ark of experts, with two of everybody, including from the alcohol industry.” There was a lot of pushback to the proposal, but by the fifth year, they got it passed. Then-Gov. Gary Johnson vetoed it, and to Fred’s chagrin, “the sponsor of the bill was ecstatic! ‘When Johnson’s re-election comes around,’ he said, ‘we’ll wrap this around his neck!’”

Welcome to the political underbelly. “I thought we were in this to solve problems and save lives!” Fred laughs. “And as I walked back to the AG’s Office, I thought, ‘We need an organization that would drain the politics out of these issues.’ I spent 1998 researching other states’ think tanks. They tended to be either way left, funded by labor unions, or way right, funded by business. That’s where the money is. It’s a window into our partisan politics on both the federal and local level. I’m just stubborn enough to believe we could do this without an ideological bent.”

_DSC9095So in 1999, Fred founded a nonpartisan version—a results-oriented think tank serving New Mexicans—educating the public, the media and policymakers about the serious problems facing New Mexico, and developing comprehensive, long-term solutions. No funding is accepted from the state, or any private group or individual with strings attached; it owes no allegiance to any party or elected official. The think tank’s focus is promoting pragmatic, equitable solutions, often stunning in their simplicity. “We looked for good statesmen and stateswomen” for the board, “many of whom have served in public office but are no longer running for anything. Stewart Udall, former congressman and secretary of the interior, was our original chairman.” Others have included Frank Ortiz, former U.S. ambassador; Garrey Carruthers, former New Mexico governor; Paul Bardacke, former AG; LaDonna Harris, president and founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity; and Roberta Cooper Ramo, first woman president of the American Bar Association.

The board initially tackled kindergarten. “In 1999, classes across the state were half-day and many children were behind. The board said, ‘Let’s change it to full-day, and make it accessible to every child in New Mexico.’ Response from experts we consulted was favorable; the biggest obstacle was we couldn’t afford it.”  Undaunted, Fred and John Gasparich, a Department of Finance and Budget director, went through the budget line by line. “We found 22 state programs that were duplicative, nonessential or wasteful. Two of my favorite examples: A welcome center just west of Gallup for tourists to stop, get a map, and state employees would tell them about attractions in New Mexico, trying to extend their stay. The only problem is it was built on the wrong side of the highway, so tourists could only access it as they were on their way out of New Mexico—we joked it was the “goodbye center!” Another was Animal Damage Control, which sent federal agents to kill ‘varmints’ on the properties of wealthy ranchers—at $2.2 million a year! Wouldn’t that be better spent in classrooms, on kids? We had an incredible fight to get the full-day kindergarten law passed. Governor Johnson said he’d veto it if it passed. So I got myself introduced to the governor’s wife. She said, ‘When my kids were little, they went half-day and we loved it! We took field trips to museums and all sorts of places!’” But, Fred explained, two-thirds of the parents in New Mexico are working parents. “She was a former teacher; she understood. The bill passed, it went to the governor, and he had 20 days to sign or veto it.” Mrs. Johnson leaned on him; meanwhile, “the business community endorsed it. The last day of the 20-day veto period came and, with one hour to go, the governor changed his mind and signed this notorious bill;” our kindergartners have been full-day ever since.

    Next, the think tank jumped on repealing the food tax. “By 2001, the majority of states had already done so,” Fred says. “It was insane—there was no real rationale for it. Wherever I went, I showed a picture of my daughter sitting next to a bag of horse feed, and I’d say, ‘If my darling baby had been born a horse, we wouldn’t have to pay taxes on her food!’ Because horse feed was tax-exempt. But we needed more fire power.  So I got myself invited to the next Grocers’ Association meeting. I said, ‘I’m just a policy wonk, but even I can see you’re making very thin margins, that you’d make more money off selling higher volume—the more disposable income people have, the more volume of groceries you can sell.’ They said, ‘Fred, you’re overlooking one little thing: under state law, we get to keep those revenues from grocery taxes for 56 days.’ The interest earned off the tax revenue, in other words, was a profit for them. So we targeted independent grocers, who got behind us and supported the effort to repeal the food tax—Cid’s in Taos, La Montañita Coop, Bode’s in Abiquiu.” The first bill Think New Mexico brought to repeal the food tax proposed replacing it with higher taxes on alcohol and tobacco. “We said, ‘Since alcohol and tobacco cause harm, why not tax them harshly instead of taxing food?’ Our two sponsors for this bill had a deep personal antipathy for one another but, together, they got the bill through the Senate, 34-4. It died in the House that first year, but two years later, with the help of Governor Richardson, the last bill passed.”

The board chooses one new initiative annually, and “each must meet particular criteria,” Fred says. “Be urgent; be large enough to make a positive impact on the lives of most New Mexicans, small enough to be achievable; and, bridge both sides of the aisle.” Fred says the board has “never not had a consensus” among its members in the selection process. Despite some very different backgrounds, “they’re able to park any strong partisan viewpoints at the door. Because no one here is running for re-election, we can take unpopular positions if we believe they’re right, and we can adopt the long view, working for results that will take longer than an election cycle to achieve.” The think tank, Fred says, brings an outside perspective that’s able to generate new ideas toward resolving many of the state’s challenging problems through “researching and advocating for the best policies to move New Mexico ahead in these national rankings where we’re so often at the bottom.”

Think New Mexico’s list of accomplishments is downright amazing. They’ve successfully tackled, among many thorny issues, lottery reform legislation, sending an additional $9 million annually to the scholarship fund; protection and restoration of our rivers through a Strategic Water Reserve; and four bills to implement their three constitutional amendments reforming the Public Regulation Commission. The cover of Think New Mexico’s yearly report for 2011 succinctly—and humorously—depicts this last issue. Under the headline “Rethinking the P.R.C.” stands a shaky pack mule on roller skates, stranded on a rocky ledge, its back piled high: buses, trains, ambulances; natural gas pipeline safety tools; telecommunications companies’ regulations; combined gas, electrical, water/wastewater regulations and way too much more. “Just by fortuitous chance,” Fred chuckles, “the same week our report was released,” recommending streamlining and decentralizing the PRC’s overloaded jurisdiction, “PRC Commissioner Jerome Block, Jr. was arrested for using his state credit card to buy gas, chimichangas, Gatorade and cigarettes.” Referring to the previous lax requirements for PRC commissioners (be at least 18 years old; have lived in New Mexico for at least a year; not been convicted of any felonies), Fred joked in his presentations, “My 8-year-old twins meet two out of three of those qualifications! We need to take some of the commission’s duties away—it’s too much—and raise qualifications for commissioners!” In the implementation process currently is a bill that Think New Mexico passed in 2015 making health care more affordable by increasing transparency and ending price discrimination, statewide.

 

    In 2013, Think New Mexico was ranked 57th on The Global Think Tank Index Report, in the Special Achievement category—the only state-level think tank to make the ranking out of 6,500 in 152 countries. Its genius is based on myriad factors––matching the right two sponsors, always a Democrat and a Republican, to each bill; as well as neutrality, optimism and a tireless dedication laced with humor displayed by Fred, Kristina, Othiamba, Business Manager Jennifer Halbert, and their interns. Contacting your legislators really does make a difference, Fred contends. And the think tank is willing to coach constituents testifying at legislative hearings. “We want to build our endowment so that the organization is sustainable and will serve New Mexicans far into the future,” he says. “We would also like for Think New Mexico to become a model for the other 49 states.”

For more information on Think New Mexico go to thinknewmexico.org.

 

Story by Gail Snyder           


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