Senate panel OKs Spaceport privacy bill

New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee members walk out of the Virgin Galactic hangar at Spaceport America after a hearing last year. (Angela Kocherga/Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A proposal aimed at allowing Spaceport America to keep more information private cleared its first Senate committee on Tuesday.

But senators – and some supporters of the bill – encouraged the sponsors of the legislation to keep working with open-government advocates to ensure the proposed confidentiality provisions aren’t too broad.

The proposal, Senate Bill 98, advanced out of the committee on a 7-1 vote, but without a recommendation on whether it should be passed. Its next stop is the Judiciary Committee, and, if passed there, the bill would go to the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Whip Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said the finer points of public records law are better handled in the Judiciary Committee, where many of the members are lawyers.

“I can see both sides,” she said. “I am concerned that (the bill) is too broad, but I want the Spaceport to flourish. … I think it’s appropriate to punt.”

The measure is co-sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo.

They said New Mexico can’t compete with other states unless space companies are assured their trade secrets and other plans will be kept confidential. Even how much rent a tenant pays to the Spaceport could be a clue to rivals about what they’re working on, supporters said.

Companies “will not come in unless they have some assurance that their intellectual property will not be disclosed,” Burt said.

Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, spoke against the bill. He urged the committee to table the legislation and direct the Spaceport to more narrowly define what must be kept confidential, with final action in next year’s session.

Trade secrets are already exempt from disclosure, St. Cyr said, and the proposal would give private companies too much power to decide what other information is kept secret.

The Spaceport is publicly funded, he said.

“The investors are taxpayers,” St. Cyr said. “… I know of no other business where investors are kept out of the loop.”

Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, testified in favor of the bill but also encouraged senators to continue “trying to find the balance between the public’s right to know and the privacy of the companies.”

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, cast the lone vote against the proposal. He proposed an amendment aimed at clarifying what could be released to the public, but the bill’s sponsors opposed it and the amendment died.

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