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.
A Senate committee bent Saturday to calls by Gov. Susana Martinez for more funding for state police pay and the District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, as well as calls from some fellow lawmakers to restore at least some of the funding cut from school districts last year. In announcing its version of the budget passed by the state House of Representatives late last month, the Senate Finance Committee seemed intent on maintaining the tenuous peace that has set in at the Roundhouse in the wake of the partisan clashes of the last few years. The budget would amount to about $6.3 billion and, according to the Senate Finance Committee, leave reserves around 10 percent. It would amount to about a 4 percent increase in spending over the current fiscal year. The House passed its version of the spending plan by a vote of 65-3 on Jan.
A state Senate committee voted Friday for a bill allowing New Mexico’s taxpayer-funded Spaceport to shield from public view the identity of its customers and other records. The Judiciary Committee voted 7-0 to advance the measure that Spaceport America says is crucial for it to attract private companies. Dan Hicks, executive director of the Spaceport, said companies interested in locating at the $209 million enterprise in Sierra County want to keep private the intellectual property they would bring with them. Republican Sen. Bill Burt of Alamogordo, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the measure is important to New Mexico taxpayers. Landing companies that can help make the Spaceport successful is crucial if the public is to recoup its investment in the project, Burt said.
Just a few years ago, some legislators proposed selling Spaceport America. They called it a boondoggle or a lagging enterprise that ought to be severed from public funding. But this year, lawmakers are poised to put more resources into the $220 million center near Truth or Consequences. A $6.3 billion budget approved this week by the state House of Representatives includes $10 million to build a new hangar at the spaceport. It also includes a 45 percent increase in the spaceport’s annual operational budget.
A bill that would let state officials keep all information about Spaceport America’s customers secret is scheduled for its first hearing Tuesday, but it faces a difficult road to approval this session. This year’s legislation, Senate Bill 98, is expansive. In addition to shielding companies’ technology and flight schedules from public disclosure, it would allow officials to hide rent payments and even the identities of private or government customers — unless a customer informs the spaceport that it can release some of that information. The need for such secrecy exists, some say, because the commercial space industry, which is valued at hundreds of billions of dollars, is hyper-competitive. This story originally appeared at NMPolitics.net.
Gov. Susana Martinez’s office has ignored multiple requests from NMPolitics.net to comment on the legislation, but her chief of staff was quoted by the Albuquerque Journal as saying Martinez supports it.
Spaceport America, which has generated plenty of controversy because of the tax subsidies it receives, now says its success depends on less public scrutiny. The Senate Public Affairs Committee obliged Friday, backing a bill to exclude many spaceport business dealings from the state’s public records law. Its members voted 5-2 to allow the spaceport to withhold information about clients in the space business. Sens. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, and Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, dissented.