Spaceport bill clears key Senate committee

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

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A proposal to allow Spaceport America to keep more of its records confidential is headed to the Senate floor after sailing through a key committee Friday.

The bill would prohibit disclosing the identity of the Spaceport’s aerospace customers who want to stay secret and any proprietary business and technical information related to the customers’ operations.

Supporters say that even how much rent a tenant pays to the Spaceport should be kept confidential because it could be a clue to rivals about what the company is working on.

Open government advocates objected to the proposal, and some senators said they were uneasy about granting so much secrecy to companies working at a taxpayer-funded site.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a version of the bill without a dissenting vote. The legislation must still make it through the full Senate, House committees and the full House before reaching the governor’s desk.

And time is running out, as the 30-day legislative session ends at noon Thursday.

Supporters said Senate Bill 98 is critical to New Mexico’s ability to attract companies in the competitive aerospace industry, where secrets are jealously guarded. The measure is co-sponsored by Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo; Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces; and Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences.

Without the confidentiality guarantees, Burt said, New Mexico won’t receive a return on its investment.

Aerospace companies “simply will not come,” he said, “and we will have a spaceport that is unable to generate business for the payback of the taxpayers of New Mexico.”

Gregory Williams, a member of the board of directors of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said the bill would create an extraordinary level of secrecy for a state agency. The proposal is too vague and broad, he said.

“It would make (Spaceport America) the least transparent agency in the state,” Williams said. “We do not think that’s appropriate for a project that the citizens of New Mexico have supported financially.”

The public has a right to know who’s doing business with the Spaceport, he said.

Taxpayers spent about $220 million to build Spaceport America and continue to support it with about $380,000 in general-fund spending this year. Next year’s budget proposal includes more money, including $10 million for a new hangar.

Trade secrets are already shielded from disclosure under the state’s public records law, but the bill would allow other information to be kept confidential, too.

Some senators said they shared the concern about transparency, though they ultimately supported the bill.

Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said the secrecy that surrounds the competition for aerospace business makes it difficult for lawmakers to independently verify whether the bill is justified.

“It’s pretty much, ‘Trust us on this one thing, and everything will be OK,’ ” McSorley said. “There’s really the inability to verify – that gives us pause about how far to go, how much is enough, how much is too much.”

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said he, too, had trouble with the concept of the legislation. Private companies, he said, can build their own launch sites “if you want this kind of secrecy.”

But he said he was satisfied that Burt had worked to address concerns about transparency.

The version of the bill approved Friday is new – a result of work by Burt with open government advocates and other opponents. The amendments were rolled into a substitute version of the bill, which now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

Williams, however, said the proposal is now more vague and broad than the version that cleared an earlier Senate committee.

The new version, for example, says explicitly that the identity of customers will be kept secret, at their request.

The legislation comes as New Mexico tries to grab a slice of the booming aerospace industry. The state is well-suited for some of the work, said Dan Hicks, CEO of Spaceport America.

The agency’s books – including total revenue – would still be subject to audit and public disclosure, he said.

But to compete for business, Hicks said, New Mexico must offer the same confidentiality that companies can get at similar sites elsewhere.

Officials of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry spoke in favor of the legislation.

“It is important to ensure the Spaceport remains competitive,” said Jason Espinoza, president and CEO of the Association of Commerce and Industry.

Among the information the proposal would shield from public disclosure:

n Records “related to specific technical or business information that is proprietary and is related to the possible relocation, expansion or operation of its aerospace customers.”

n The identity of aerospace customers if they request nondisclosure.

n Records that would compromise physical security or cybersecurity of the Spaceport.

The Spaceport is west of White Sands Missile Range, about 45 miles north of Las Cruces.

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