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Friday, October 19, 2007
Trains, Spaceplanes & Politics;
FOR THE RECORD: State Senate Minority Whip Leonard Lee Rawson's party affiliation has been corrected in this story.
By Trip Jennings
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE If New Mexico can pick up the tab for the Rail Runner in the north, it should do the same for its fledgling spaceport in the south.
So say several southern New Mexico lawmakers after Gov. Bill Richardson recently said the state would help pay for the Rail Runner commuter train's future operational costs.
The Rail Runner, when complete, will run between Belen and Santa Fe at an estimated cost of $20 million a year.
The governor rejected creating a regional transit district last month to pay those costs because it would involve asking voters in the four counties the Rail Runner would traverse Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Valencia and Sandoval to approve a local tax.
But a local tax levied on voters by a regional district, in fact, is how the state is planning to develop the Spaceport America complex, which is to be located near White Sands Missile Range in southern Sierra County.
And that has forced the issue, southern New Mexico lawmakers say.
"How are we for a tax in southern New Mexico and not for one in northern New Mexico?" asked House Minority Whip Dan Foley, R-Roswell.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, agreed.
"You can't do it for one and not for the other," Smith said.
Smith, Foley and others including Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and Sen. Minority Whip Leonard Lee Rawson, R-Las Cruces said this week that they will push for parity during the 2008 session.
"The train is nothing but a local issue, and it helps two of the wealthiest counties. Why is the rest of the state subsidizing them?" asked Rawson, who added that the spaceport "absolutely is a statewide project."
But the southern New Mexico lawmakers will confront powerful opposition, including from House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe.
Lujan has the opposite take on the matter. He said Thursday that it is appropriate to ask local voters to share a portion of the financial burden for the spaceport because it will affect mainly that region.
"The Rail Runner benefits the whole state," Lujan said.
He added that requiring local support in the form of local tax revenue for the spaceport was necessary to pass the legislation in 2006.
"When you make a deal, you need to stick to it," Lujan said.
Gilbert Gallegos, the governor's spokesman, said Thursday that Richardson had worked to create "opportunities for every community in the state, which is why nearly $400 million in transportation projects have been built or are in the works for southern New Mexico."
The regional district to support the spaceport has not materialized. Voters in Doña Ana County approved a quarter-cent local tax this year to support the project, but Sierra and Otero counties haven't asked their voters to approve a similar tax.
The southern lawmakers aren't arguing that the state isn't already helping out with the spaceport.
The state has earmarked at least $110 million in capital outlay money over several years to help with startup costs at the Spaceport, which will blast the rich and possibly famous into the stratosphere and beyond when it is completed. It will consist of a main terminal and hangar for Spaceport America, which will launch lightweight craft carrying six passengers and two pilots more than 60 miles above Earth's surface.
Meanwhile, startup costs for the Rail Runner probably will end up totaling more than $400 million, most of which will be borne by the state.
But it doesn't sound right to ask voters in one part of the state to share part of the financial burden to run a project when you don't ask voters in another part of the state to do the same thing, the lawmakers said.
"It's just not fair," Papen said.