Free Market, Free Thinking
A conversation with Paul Gessing of the Rio Grande Foundation
By Jim Scarantino
The e-mail about one of my columns came from Paul Gessing. I recognized the name instantly. I knew him to be the director of Government Affairs for the National Taxpayers Union. I had read his op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. I wrote back, asking how a column in our humble alternative weekly paper had come to his attention two thousand miles away in Washington, D.C. He answered that he was writing from Albuquerque, where he had recently taken over as president of the Rio Grande Foundation.
Since then, I’ve been seeing Gessing’s name in local newspapers and watching his television appearances. At the risk of sounding pretentious, his name deserves to appear on any list of “Young New Mexicans to Watch.” (He’s 31 years old.)
Let’s start with an easy one: What is the Rio Grande Foundation?
It’s New Mexico’s free-market, limited-government think tank. We’re not-for-profit and part of a national network of limited government think tanks known as the State Policy Network, which has members in almost every state.
Let’s peel away the labels. What exactly does “free-market, limited-government think tank” mean?
“Think tank” means we work to promote ideas. Ideas of the “free-market, limited-government” persuasion means we think individuals and groups of people acting voluntarily are usually better equipped to create a just, livable society than are government bureaucrats who must rely on force to achieve their goals—goals often at odds with individual freedom and the betterment of society as a whole.
For a new face in town, you certainly made a big splash in fighting the proposed streetcar project.
I debated Greg Payne [Albuquerque transportation director] on the radio, but the big splash was the op-ed piece in the Albuquerque Journal before the Council vote. I got a ton of e-mails from people saying how pissed they were about the streetcar and asking me what would be done. I put people in touch with each other and several of us spoke at the City Council hearing where the project was passed. Then the activists held a rally expressing opposition to the streetcar, and the Foundation was part of that. But, really, it was the activists, realizing they weren’t alone and given some intellectual information [provided by the Rio Grande Foundation], that got the Council to have second thoughts. There is now a nascent taxpayer group called SWAT or Stop Wasting Albuquerque Taxes that will become a permanent voice for those who want the city to use tax dollars more efficiently and only for those purposes for which government is intended.
What else are your working on?
The bulk of our work involves statewide policy issues. We are working to reform eminent domain laws. We worked closely on the Taxpayer Protection Act that would place limits on the growth of state government. We have also been working on the Real ID issue, specifically the unfunded mandate problem and the enforcement burdens that would be placed on businesses.
Isn’t one of your allies in fighting Real ID the American Civil Liberties Union?
Yes. There are too few advocates for limited government for us not to work with those who may agree with us on particular issues.
To put it bluntly, the rap against the Rio Grande Foundation has been that it was just a front for John Dendahl’s faction of the GOP, while he was state chairman and afterwards. He was also the Foundation’s president, and it appeared he trotted out the Foundation’s credentials to make his partisan statements sound high-minded.
I wish there was a stamp of approval I could give to assure New Mexicans of our independence. I’ll say this: John Dendahl was too close to the Republican establishment to run a foundation like ours and be an effective, independent voice. I am not John Dendahl and I am not tied to the Republican Party, or any party politics for that matter.
Our goal is to spread the ideas of limited government here in New Mexico. If Bill Richardson and the Democrats do that by protecting property owners from eminent domain and cutting economically harmful taxes, or the ACLU leads the charge on Real ID, we’re eager to help. Our goal is to show with such clarity that limited government is preferable to the voting public that politicians of all parties will consider our advice.
But isn’t “more government” our true state motto? Look at the exploding state budget, for instance.
Bigger government and dependency [on bigger government] does not have to be the norm. True, there are some unique characteristics here that make the state prone to big government and bad economic policies. The existence of rich natural resources and a disproportionate amount of federal largesse are factors that cushion New Mexico political leaders from the results of bad economic policies and help make people more dependent [on big government]. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Despite our natural resources, we have some of the highest poverty rates and lowest income levels in the nation. Hopefully, our efforts to educate voters will result in more people demanding their leaders make changes that will improve economic conditions for all New Mexicans, not just those who write fat campaign checks.
In looking over your bio, I don’t see the profile of a right-wing operative. Please share a little bit about yourself.
My mom’s side of the family lives here. She went to St. Pius High School. I grew up in Cincinnati and moved to Washington after college because I wanted to be involved in politics. I was very active in the environmental movement in college and would consider myself [to have been] “liberal,” as my greatest extracurricular accomplishment was organizing an Earth Day celebration at which Jerry Brown, former governor of California, spoke.
In Washington, I did stints with Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY). Through reading and introspection I came to the conclusion that while the left is often very good at critiquing political issues, its prescription is all too often the same: more government. I consider my ability to empathize and understand much of what the left is concerned about to be one of my great strengths personally and in this job.
Shortly after reaching those conclusions, I took a job with the free market-oriented National Taxpayers Union and moved up the ladder until I became the top lobbyist. Seeing nowhere to advance internally, I eventually found the job with the Rio Grande Foundation and moved here in February 2006.
What is your “free market, limited government” take on the spending habits of Mayor Martin Chavez?
The mayor is a big spender, especially when compared with [his predecessor] Jim Baca. Chavez has spent $282 million more than inflation since taking office in 2001. Baca’s spending was actually $45 million less than inflation during his time in office.
As you noted, the streetcar debate brought out some very angry taxpayers. Do you think we are seeing the beginning of a lasting taxpayer movement, or was that only a reaction to the mayor’s and Council’s mishandling of the issue?
There is a small group of activists that are deeply concerned about the taxing and spending going on. I think the movement has some legs, so I’d have to say that we are seeing the beginnings of a taxpayers’ rights movement. That isn’t to say that this burgeoning taxpayer rights movement is going to be a constant presence in the media. But when the mayor tries again to ram the streetcar or the arena down our throats, there will be an organized opposition to fight him—and the City Council.
What resources does the Rio Grande Foundation bring to the fight?
We are still building in the resources department. I’d say that, compared to other nonprofits of a similar nature, we are the most effective in terms of getting our message into the public sphere. That said, our 2006 budget was under $150,000. You can find similar information for every nonprofit at guidestar.org, although 2006 data is not yet generally available.
What about your website?
It is riograndefoundation.org. We also have a blog: errorsofenchantment.com.
Looking back on your first year in New Mexico, how do you feel about your accomplishments and prospects for the future?
I’d say our accomplishments have surpassed our expectations. The major newspapers have been receptive to our message on everything from eminent domain abuse to the streetcar and the arena. The local television stations, especially “The Line” and “In Focus” on KNME [Channel 5], not to mention KRQE [Channel 13], have asked for our input on abuse of film industry tax credits, the streetcar, red light cameras, the eminent domain battle over New Mexico Utilities on the Westside and more. Ironically, particularly considering the fact that many people would consider us “right-wing,” KKOB [770 AM] has only had me on once for a short segment to discuss eminent domain.
The thing is that, in this state, all levels of government have an impact on our daily lives and livelihoods that is just not found in many other states. The job of educating people about the very real problems of government and how they may be negatively impacted is a never-ending one. But people are receptive to what we have to say, especially when we state the facts and choose not to resort to personal attacks.
My fiancée has moved here, we’ve bought a house, and I look forward to the Rio Grande Foundation continuing to grow in size and effectiveness.
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