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Governor, key Democrat back Spaceport secrecy bill

A rocket built by a rocket team from New Mexico Tech and White Sands Research and Developers LLC lifts off from Spaceport America in November. (Source: White Sands Research and Developers LLC)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bill that would allow Spaceport America to keep certain information confidential – such as security records and visitor logs – has the backing of Gov. Susana Martinez and a top Democratic state lawmaker, who says it’s needed to keep up in a national space race.

However, an open-government group has criticized the idea of giving such authority to the taxpayer-funded facility, saying Spaceport officials have already shown a troubling pattern of withholding records that should be publicly available.

The debate comes on the heels of the busiest year on record at the Spaceport, a commercial facility in southern New Mexico that has been blasted by critics as a boondoggle since construction began in 2006.

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, one of the sponsors of the legislation pending at the Roundhouse, said the bill is not intended to make Spaceport operations more secretive.

Sen. Mary Kay Papen

Rather, she said, the bill, Senate Bill 98, would help New Mexico maintain its edge over other states with similar commercial space facilities by assuaging companies’ concerns that sensitive information might be obtained by their competitors.

“We have such an investment there that I think we need to do everything we can to make the Spaceport successful,” Papen said in a recent interview. “We’re trying to make sure we don’t damage our opportunity to be competitive and win.”

“Chevrolet is not going to share its trade secrets with Ford,” said Papen, a retired car dealer.

But Peter St. Cyr, the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, called the proposed legislation overly broad.

He also said the Spaceport’s practice of blacking out certain lease payments in response to public records requests has already generated concern.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that taxpayers are stakeholders and have a right to know what’s going on in a facility they paid to build,” St. Cyr told the Journal.

Located in a remote area near Truth or Consequences, the Spaceport was built after the state and voters in Doña Ana and Sierra counties agreed to spend $220 million on its construction.

But the project has long been controversial. It has taken longer than originally predicted to launch commercial space flights and has not become financially self-sufficient. For the coming budget year, the Spaceport Authority has asked the Legislature to increase its base funding from about $375,000 to $1 million.

The back side of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal and hangar as seen from the main road into Spaceport America

The back side of the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal and hangar as seen from the main road into Spaceport America. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Meanwhile, Martinez, the state’s two-term Republican governor, told the Journal she supports the confidentiality legislation, officially called the “Commercial Aerospace Protection Act.”

She and top staffers said the bill is intended to safeguard companies’ proprietary information from being breached during contract negotiations.

Martinez’s chief of staff, Keith Gardner, said the administration supports making all contract information open once contracts are completed.

A similar bill was introduced last year but stalled in a Senate committee.

Currently, the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, which covers all public bodies and agencies, allows only public hospitals to withhold information about internal trade secrets.

The legislation filed during the ongoing 30-day session would effectively create a new exemption. Security manuals, computer systems, visitor logs, security videos, data storage systems, advanced instruments and Spaceport facility technology would be among the records that could be kept confidential by the Spaceport Authority under the proposed law.

In addition to New Mexico’s Spaceport America, there are roughly 10 other licensed spaceports in the U.S., with applications pending for several more, a top Spaceport America executive said last month.

They are competing for huge sums of money – about $339 billion was spent in the commercial space market in 2016.

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