Lawmakers might give Spaceport America greater secrecy

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COMMENTARY: When state lawmakers and voters in Doña Ana and Sierra counties agreed to spend $220 million to build Spaceport America a decade ago, they weren’t told it would come with so much secrecy.

But secrecy is largely what the investors — we New Mexicans — have gotten in exchange for our dollars. During my investigation of the spaceport in 2017 I faced hurdle after hurdle in my attempts to help New Mexicans evaluate whether they’re getting an adequate return on their investment.

Heath Haussamen

Heath Haussamen

The N.M. Spaceport Authority provided its lease agreements with commercial space companies, but redacted four of the five. Information the agency withheld from the public in all leases except Virgin Galactic’s included how much companies are paying in rent and fees, where at the spaceport they’re operating, insurance information, and in one lease even the contact information for company officials.

I also requested all supporting documentation for a slideshow presentation that claimed the spaceport generated $20 in economic activity for every $1 the state spent in fiscal year 2016. Such a complex analysis requires review of financial information and other documents, and I wanted it all. I was told repeatedly that no such documents exist.

I had problems getting minutes of a meeting of the spaceport’s governing board in the time required by law. And the spaceport blocked me on Twitter. When I asked why, the agency unblocked me but refused my request to release the full list of accounts it had blocked from seeing its tweets.

Others had problems too. I documented them all and concluded in an article that the spaceport is plagued by transparency problems.

In some ways I understand the desire for secrecy. The well-funded commercial space industry is hyper-competitive. Some companies are demanding total secrecy to protect their proprietary information or they won’t do business in New Mexico.

I want the spaceport to succeed. Rarely does New Mexico take such a holistic approach to economic development. In this case, we thought through the economic benefit to Las Cruces and the state as a whole and the tourism benefit to Sierra County if the spaceport were to succeed. We created K-12 and college educational programs related to the aerospace industry to help ensure our children — who are currently New Mexico’s greatest export — would be able to compete for the jobs we were betting would come. That would help our kids have the choice to stay in New Mexico after college.

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But let’s not forget that New Mexicans funded this project, and we are the investors. This is our spaceport. Companies that do business here are paying for the right to use a facility we own.

The N.M. Inspection of Public Records Act is based on the premise that “all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government.” That’s because, the law states, “a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate.”

Our state’s success is dependent on us knowing what our government is doing and being able to help formulate public policy that makes sense. Exemptions that allow government to shield information from the public need to be rare, and allowed only with the public’s input.

And yet the spaceport’s default stance seems to be meeting the needs of its customers, the space companies, not their investors. Well-intentioned though that may be — they seem genuine in their desire to help build us a better economy — it’s not what state law currently intends.

But what the law intends might be about to change.

For the second year in a row, the spaceport is seeking legislation that would let it withhold almost all information about its customers from the public. The intent is to protect companies’ trade secrets, spaceport officials say.

I’ve been disappointed as the legislation has gained the approval of two Senate committees in the current session that no lawmaker has brought up the way the spaceport has acted in response to requests for information over the past year.

Spaceport officials have essentially told me and others they already have the right to withhold information. Meanwhile, they’re telling lawmakers they need the Legislature to give the spaceport that right. Which is it?

My contention is that the spaceport has illegally withheld information I was trying to share with you so you can evaluate the project. I filed complaints with the state attorney general in September alleging violations. The AG’s office says it hopes to issue a determination before the session ends Thursday. While we wait, an important public policy debate is playing out without that context from the AG.

The spaceport’s past transparency problems should be part of the Legislature’s debate. Prior refusals to release information to the public, if I’m right that doing so was illegal, not only disrespected the public, but also the Legislature’s role in setting the law.

Why aren’t lawmakers asking questions about that?

Instead, most who’ve had a chance to consider the secrecy legislation have voted to advance it. And, thanks to a renewed optimism in the Roundhouse about the spaceport this year, lawmakers appear to be on track to increase the spaceport’s operating budget and give it $10 million to build a new hangar.

This 30-day budget session is cramped and not conducive to important policy deliberations. The public and lawmakers saw no proposed legislation to give the spaceport greater secrecy during interim committee meetings last summer.

A decision to grant the spaceport greater secrecy should be made only after the public has been given real opportunities to understand what’s being proposed and weigh in.

If the Legislature was going through such a thoughtful and intentional process, and the public and Legislature decided the spaceport needs greater secrecy, I could stomach it. I believe our collective right to determine our state’s future is more important than any personal opinion I hold.

But instead, the spaceport has already been withholding information it now asks for the right to keep secret, and discussion on whether that should be legal going forward is happening in a rushed way without enough public scrutiny.

If this is going to happen, this isn’t the way it should be done.

Based on the votes so far, I think it’s likely the Senate will pass this bill. I don’t know what will happen in the House. The governor supports it. Things are likely to move quickly in the session’s final days.

It’s important and urgent that you learn about this issue and weigh in. You can read my investigative series on Spaceport America by clicking here. And then, regardless of your opinion on the legislation, call your lawmakers and tell them what you think. You can find their contact information here.

Heath Haussamen is NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher. Agree with his opinion? Disagree? We welcome your views. Learn about submitting your own commentary here.

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