Spaceport secrecy bill clears Senate, heads to House

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Dan Hicks

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks.

State senators voted 35-5 on Monday to grant greater secrecy to Spaceport America, the controversial public facility near Truth or Consequences that cost more than $200 million to build but has yet to become the hub of space tourism that its boosters promised.

Supporters say an exception in New Mexico’s open records law is necessary to attract businesses that are on the cusp of signing contracts to come to the spaceport.

“This bill will provide them the protections they need to draw in some of the biggest names in aerospace,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, told the Senate.

He promised that New Mexicans would see a significant return on their already substantial investment within the next three years.

Critics argue that Burt’s measure, Senate Bill 98, goes too far, allowing Spaceport America’s management to shroud in secrecy basic information about their business dealings, all while taxpayers continue to foot the costs.

As the Legislature also considers increasing the facility’s budget and giving it $10 million to construct a new hangar, the vote reflected a sentiment among lawmakers that the state had already spent too much on the spaceport to see it fail. In turn, the prospect of salvaging its prospects are worth extra costs — and bending the laws, lawmakers say.

Constructed in part with bonds that the residents of Doña Ana and Sierra counties are continuing to pay off, Spaceport America opened in 2011 as the site where Virgin Galactic would launch wealthy adventurers towards the heavens in private crafts.

Those flights have yet to take off. But the private space industry is booming and several other states have been developing spaceports of their own.

Spaceport America’s backers argue that New Mexico must continue building on the site and provide some exemptions from the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act to attract other businesses to the facility. Burt said other states have changed open records laws to accommodate protective, high-tech companies.

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His bill would exempt from New Mexico’s open records law the very identify of its tenants. The bill would also exempt information “related to specific technical or business information that is proprietary and is related to the possible relocation, expansion or operation of its aerospace customers.”

“This bill serves to protect almost everything,” said Greg Williams, of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

Williams argued this bill would go beyond secrecy laws designed for spaceports in Florida or Virginia that New Mexico regards as competitors.

“It’s clear what the legislators are struggling with is trying to balance transparency with the fact taxpayers have sunk so much money into this,” Williams said.

There is a balance, he argued, but said this bill does not strike it.

The facility has had plenty of critics.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, had proposed just a few years ago to sell the spaceport.

And on Monday night, he still raised several concerns, arguing for example that the spaceport needs to get rid of Virgin Galactic.

But Muñoz voted for the bill, hinting the facility is close to a big development.

“This is Spaceport America’s chance to make it work. I’ve been here for 10 years and it hasn’t worked,” Muñoz said. “… If it doesn’t happen in the next two to three years, Spaceport America should be put up for sale.”

Five Democrats voted against the public records exemptions.

They were Sens. Howie Morales of Silver City, Bill Soules of Las Cruces, Clemente Sanchez of Grants, and Jacob Candelaria and Michael Padilla, both of Albuquerque.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, recused himself. Spaceport America has leased office space from a business that he owns.

Burt’s bill now goes to the House of Representatives with three days left in the legislative session.

Contact Andrew Oxford at (505) 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.

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