SANTA FE – A measure aimed at breaking a lingering disagreement over extending liability protections for commercial spacecraft manufacturers rocketed through a New Mexico Senate committee Monday, setting up a likely full Senate vote this week.
The 9-0 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where a different liability bill sought by Spaceport America died last year, came after the chairman of a separate Senate panel formally requested that the bill bypass his
Senate Democratic Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen said the accord reached by Virgin Galactic, the Spaceport’s anchor tenant, and the state’s Trial Lawyers Association paved the way for quick action on the measure this time around.
“Everybody pretty well knows what it is,” Sanchez told the Journal.
The measure approved Monday – Senate Bill 240 – would expand legal liability protections for spacecraft manufacturers and suppliers, provided such companies carry liability insurance policies of at least $1 million.
New Mexico law already offers legal protections for spaceflight operators, but efforts to expand the liability waiver have been defeated in recent years amid opposition from the Trial Lawyers Association, which has voiced concerns about consumer protection.
However, last week’s announcement of the deal between Virgin Galactic and the Trial Lawyers Association appears to have changed the issue’s dynamics and put the liability legislation on the fast track in Santa Fe.
The compromise bill was scheduled to be heard in the Senate Public Affairs Committee before it could move on to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
However, Democratic legislative leaders proposed skipping that step to send a message, said Senate Public Affairs Committee Chairman Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque cq.
“The majority leader asked me if I’d be willing to pass it on,” Ortiz y Pino said. “I said fine, because they’re trying to move it as quickly as possible to get it done in a way that sends a real clear message to the potential users of the spaceport that this thing has a lot of support.”
New Mexico has invested $209 million in Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences.
Because of the disagreement over extending liability, Virgin Galactic officials say at least two commercial aerospace manufacturing companies that considered relocating to New Mexico chose in the past year to move to other states that already had legislation in place similar to SB 240.
Virgin Galactic Senior Program Manager Mark Butler cq told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday that the company does not intend to ask for additional money from the state.
The Spaceport’s anchor tenant would also welcome other space-travel companies at the venue, Butler said.
“Virgin Galactic is very interested in other businesses coming to New Mexico,” he said. “The more tenants there are at the spaceport, the better it is for us.”
The expanded liability legislation will not be voted on by the full Senate today, but will likely be taken up sometime this week, Sanchez said.
The bill is sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, cq D-Las Cruces. A similar measure has also been introduced in the House, where it is sponsored by Rep. James White, cq R-Albuquerque.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal