Sunshine will help Spaceport America succeed

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COMMENTARY: I wasn’t looking to pick a fight with Spaceport America. I hope to watch launches with my daughter in the coming years. I want this project to succeed.

I also believe you should have access to information about our state’s massive investment in a project that could transform our economy. You deserve the ability to help make that happen.

Heath Haussamen

Heath Haussamen

Public scrutiny makes government better. Transparency will help the spaceport succeed.

Unfortunately, there are forces trying to hide information about the spaceport from the public. They say secrecy is necessary to compete with other space facilities.

I first became aware of their efforts last month. Two spaceport officials called me out of the blue. They said they wanted to answer any questions I had.

I asked how much tenants are paying in rent at the spaceport. Tammara Anderton, vice president for business development, asked me why I wanted to know that. Cue the red flag.

I explained that taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the project and legislators understandably want to know, as does the public, about the return on their investment.

I got nothing. Bill Gutman, vice president of spaceport operations, explained that it would be damaging to release the spaceport’s “rate card.”

I asked who the tenants were. Anderton said there were five. I asked her to email me information about them. She sent me the names of the tenants and shared whether they launch vertically – using rockets – or horizontally from the spaceport’s runway. That’s it.

They also told me the spaceport had a twenty-fold return on the state’s investment in terms of economic impact in Fiscal Year 2016 — $20.8 million back from the state’s spending of $944,000. I asked in an email for documents that showed “the actual data” to support that claim. I wrote that I wanted “the analysis that shows in more detail where those incoming dollars came from.”

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I didn’t get that either. The spaceport’s chief financial officer, Zach De Gregorio, sent me a document shown to a legislative committee last year that lacked details. It wasn’t what I requested.

Why the hesitancy to release information? “It makes us non-competitive to other spaceports across the country,” Anderton told me. “And our existing and especially potential customers become unhappy as they are also working in an entrepreneurial marketplace and expect us to be able to keep their proprietary and other mission information confidential so that they can compete. It penalizes Spaceport America and the State of New Mexico and makes us far less competitive as a state.”

I didn’t ask for any private company’s “proprietary and other mission information.”

Now proposed legislation would solidify that the spaceport doesn’t have to release information related to the return on our investment. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, would keep that information secret. Members of a Senate committee endorsed the bill last week, but it has a long road to approval before the current legislative session ends Saturday.

The legislation should die. You should have access to the financial information they don’t want to release. So this weekend I filed a formal IPRA request for the documents that led to the fiscal analysis and all lease agreements with “permanent tenants” at the spaceport.

We’ve all invested a ton of money in this project – especially in Doña Ana and Sierra counties, where taxpayers voted a decade ago to raise the gross receipts tax to supplement state funding.

This project has the potential to transform our state’s economy, or it could be a boondoggle. I want the spaceport to succeed. I believe public scrutiny will help make that happen. This is Sunshine Week, and I can think of no better way to mark it than by fighting to shine light on Spaceport America.

Heath Haussamen is NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher.

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