New Mexico Senate approves spaceport secrecy bill

February 13, 2018

FILE - This Dec. 9, 2014, file photo shows the taxiway leading to the hangar at Spaceport America in Upham, N.M. Operators of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority that runs Spaceport America in southern New Mexico are seeking greater confidentiality for tenants that include aspiring commercial spaceflight company Virgin Galactic. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, file)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Senate approved confidentiality provisions Monday for aerospace companies working out of a taxpayer-funded space launch facility in southern New Mexico.

Exceptions to state open-records laws for trade secrets and sensitive financial information about tenants at Spaceport America cleared the Senate on a 35-5 vote, as the lead sponsor of the measure promised a big payback in future business. The bill now moves to the House, with a three-day window for approval before lawmakers adjourn.

Sen. William Burt of Alamogordo, the sponsor, told Senate colleagues that the secrecy provisions won’t obstruct financial audits of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and are bound to help attract prospective clients — echoing arguments by managers of the facility.

“It is a new day at Spaceport America,” Burt said. “This bill will provide them the protection that they need to draw in some of the biggest names in aerospace in the United States as well as around the world. ... We will get such a big payback on our investment that all of our discussions tonight, I firmly believe, will be mute.”

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government says the proposed restrictions on public records would keep secret the names of companies doing businesses with the spaceport and the financial terms of individual contracts, undermining accountability and financial oversight.

Greg Williams, an officer with the foundation, said lawmakers are being put in an awkward position on secrecy provisions as they consider increases in state funding on top of more than $200 million in past investments.

“They feel that we are so far along in this process and have put so much money into it that they don’t’ want to be an impediment to success,” he said. “But transparency is not an obstacle” to financial success.

The spaceport’s main tenant is Virgin Galactic, whose efforts to open up suborbital flights to passengers was set back years by a midflight failure over California in 2014 that left a test pilot dead. The company says it is getting closer to powered test flights of a new flight vehicle.

Unmanned rocket launches are routine at the facility, but many lawmakers say the spaceport has not lived up to its financial promises to taxpayers.

Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, on Monday suggested the Spaceport look for a new primary tenant — and that the facility be sold if its finances don’t improve over the next two or three years. Munoz is campaigning to lead the State Land Office that leases 28 square miles (72 square kilometers) of state trust land at Spaceport America.

The Legislature is considering a new $10 million general fund investment in the facility to create a satellite testing hangar where aerospace payloads can be prepared for launch.

State contributions to annual operating expenses at the facility would climb from $375,00 to $975,000, under a general fund spending bill as currently written.

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