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Spaceport bill still allows too much secrecy

Blasting rockets into orbit has always captured Americans’ attention. We were quick to accept President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon; we backed his Apollo rocket program and we’ve cheered NASA’s successes since then.

In New Mexico, we honor local scientists for their contributions to rocket development. In the 1930s, Robert Goddard received a warm welcome at White Sands to test his liquid gas fueled rockets. Four years after his Apollo 17 mission to collect moon rocks, Silver City native Harrison Schmitt was elected to the U.S. Senate. New Mexicans greeted Space Shuttle Columbia’s crew back to earth in 1982 when storms blocked NASA’s primary runways in Florida and California.

Today, New Mexico taxpayers are more than space travel spectators – we are stakeholders in Spaceport America, which was financed with more than $200 million of taxpayer dollars and is a public facility. And we continue to provide money every year to the spaceport out of the state’s annual budget.

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government understands that the spaceport is competing with several other spaceports for new customers and tenants. The competition is fierce and spaceport leaders have said that tenants’ confidentiality is imperative to attract these customers. That’s why NMFOG worked in good faith with Spaceport America executives to try to draft a law that aided the spaceport’s economic viability without undermining the public’s right to review its management and track the flow of money into the public facility.

Unfortunately, FOG and the spaceport could not come to agreement on two main points. Senate Bill 98 allows companies that are customers of the spaceport to conceal their identities from the public as well as conceal the amounts they pay the spaceport in lease and other payments. Spaceport officials say they will release a total amount of lease revenue monthly, but not a breakdown by customer.

Spaceport officials say most companies will not seek confidentiality, but for those that do, it is imperative that they be allowed this secrecy in order for the spaceport to compete in this new age of space.

But by passing this bill, lawmakers would be abdicating their legislative oversight role and allowing spaceport officials to determine which documents are public and which are confidential. They would be placing their trust in the spaceport with little accountability. This, despite the spaceport’s track record when it comes to Inspection of Public Records Act violations. Even the New Mexico Attorney General has found IPRA violations at Spaceport America.

It is not in the interest of New Mexicans to pass a policy that allows a state agency so much secrecy — and opens the door to similar requests by agencies dealing with other industries.

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