February 14, 2018

Committee advances bill allowing spaceport to shield some records

Andrew Oxford/Santa Fe New Mexican

Spaceport America was originally pitched for tourism, but CEO Dan Hicks says the real money will come from companies working on satellites, research, high-speed air travel and other projects.

A legislative committee gave its backing Wednesday to a bill that would allow Spaceport America to exempt many of its business dealings from New Mexico’s open records law as the state’s major open government advocacy group dropped its opposition to the measure.

The publicly owned facility, which cost more than $200 million to construct, has been pushing for the legislation, arguing the bill would allow it to attract more aerospace companies to New Mexico from a highly competitive and secretive industry.

And while critics had argued the measure would diminish the public’s oversight of the facility, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government said it would not oppose a revised version of the bill put forward by a top Republican lawmaker Wednesday evening.

“It’s a very difficult balance,” Rep. Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican, told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday evening, summing up how lawmakers have been torn this session between arguments for transparency and arguments that the facility already has cost the state too much money to pass up any opportunity to attract business.

As a public agency, Spaceport America’s own finances will still be audited.

But the version of Senate Bill 98 approved by the House Judiciary Committee would exempt from New Mexico’s open records law “proprietary technical or business information” as well as “information that is related to the possible relocation, expansion or operations of [Spaceport America’s] aerospace customers.”

To keep their information private, those companies would have to demonstrate “based on specific factual evidence, that disclosure of the information would cause substantial harm.”

Gentry argued this will set a higher bar for the spaceport to withhold information under the Inspection of Public Records Act.

But how far does that go?

Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks said after the committee meeting that he believes the bill could still allow the facility to exempt from the open records law information such as leases and the identities of companies doing business.

Critics had held up both, however, as examples of information the public is entitled to get in assessing the value of what has amounted to a multimillion-dollar investment by taxpayers.

The House Judiciary Committee passed the measure to the House floor Wednesday night without opposition and with little debate.

And Hicks said the bill would be a boost to the facility. He pointed to other states that have opened spaceports in recent years.

“I think there are a lot of companies that might have gone to Virginia, California, Georgia or Texas that will consider [New Mexico],” Hicks said after the vote Wednesday.

Spaceport America opened in 2011 as a hub for space tourism, where wealthy adventurers would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for flights toward the heavens. But those flights have yet to take off.

Meanwhile, residents of Doña Ana and Sierra counties are still paying off the facility through a gross receipts tax.

The space industry has been booming, even if space tourism is not.

And spaceport administrators have pushed in recent years for additional funds to expand the facility and for exemptions from the state’s open records law, arguing both are needed to attract aerospace companies in a highly competitive industry.

Lawmakers have said the facility is on the verge of drawing major investors that would make it worthwhile to spend additional funds on the spaceport and bend the open records laws that typically apply to public agencies.

The Senate approved the bill 35-5. The House has yet to vote on the bill, however, and it will have to go back to the Senate for another vote.

Still, support for the measure marks a contrast to previous years, in which one lawmaker even proposed selling the facility.

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