Spaceport bill passes

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Spaceport America Terminal Hanger Facility (COURTESY OF SMPC ARCHITECTS)

SANTA FE – It was a good legislative session for Spaceport America, the launch site that might one day propel tourists into space.

The agency won new confidentiality protections for its aerospace customers in the last hours of the 30-day session, though lawmakers made significant changes to the bill to narrow what can be kept secret.

The Spaceport itself is also in line for some extra money in next year’s budget.

It’s a turnaround from past years, when some lawmakers slammed the $220 million Spaceport as a poor investment for taxpayers or floated the idea of selling it.

Legislators on Thursday credited the Spaceport’s new executive director, Dan Hicks, for giving them the confidence to make the agency a priority this year. Hicks, a longtime executive at the nearby White Sands Missile Range, took over the Spaceport in late 2016.

“It’s an asset that’s been underutilized,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the House appropriations committee. “It’s a better investment now.”

The budget proposal sent to Gov. Susana Martinez includes about $10 million to build a new hangar at the Spaceport in addition to an increased operating budget to pay for engineers and other staff.

The agency pushed hard this year for legislation that would allow confidentiality for much of its customer information.

At one point, the Spaceport was backing a bill that said explicitly that aerospace tenants at the Spaceport could keep their identities secret if they wanted. Even how much rent they paid could have been kept confidential.

The privacy was essential, supporters said, to attract companies in the intensely competitive aerospace industry, where rivals seize on any clue about their competitors’ work.

In the end, the version of the bill passed by lawmakers – a product of negotiations involving House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque – is more narrow, though there may be disputes over how to interpret the language.

The bill now exempts from public disclosure aerospace customer information that would cause “substantial competitive harm” to the company. The exemption would have to be based on “specific factual evidence.”

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government didn’t oppose the final version of the bill, and Spaceport supporters agreed to the amendments.

The privacy legislation, Senate Bill 98, was co-sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces; Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo, and Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences.

It now heads to the governor for her approval.

During debate this year, supporters of the Spaceport hinted that customers are ready to sign contracts if suitable privacy provisions become law. Landing just one large company, the Spaceport contends, could result in 200 new jobs.

“I want to see a return on the investment,” Dow said Thursday. “I think we’re going to see huge progress over the next 12 to 18 months.”

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Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales, talks with Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks on the House floor Thursday near the end of the 30-day legislative session. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal )

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