If the New Mexico Legislature again refuses to grant a limited liability exemption to Spaceport America suppliers and Sir Richard Branson really picks up his spacecraft and takes off for clearer skies, New Mexico taxpayers still have options for their $209 million investment in the desert:
♦ They could partner with a tribe or scare up a track license and open up a “spacino.”
♦ They could join forces with the lone new business in the Upham area — a Holiday Inn Express — and offer the most expensive continental breakfast in the solar system.
♦ They could bank on Medicaid expansion under Obamacare becoming a leading economic driver and use the hangar as an intergalactic claims-processing station.
♦ They could take a headache away from local and state corrections officials and convert the elegant and futuristic facility into a new-age methadone clinic — accessible to junkies via an expanded Rail Runner commuter train, of course.
All proposals are as ridiculous as allowing this public-private venture to fail because the trial lawyer lobby is more concerned about the suing rights of wealthy space tourists (who have been thoroughly briefed and signed waivers) than the economic needs of New Mexico, the hefty investment of state taxpayers and the promise of an emerging industry.
But hey, who needs jobs when maybe we can salvage some additional federal benefits from the wreckage at the bottom of the fiscal cliff?
Unbelievably, Virgin Galactic can walk away virtually clawback-free seven years into this venture. Thank the lack of foresight of then-Gov. Bill Richardson and Co. for that 2005 loophole.
And the company just might exercise that option — 18 spaceports are proposed across the country, and Texas, Florida, Colorado and Virginia now extend the lawsuit protection New Mexico has already granted to spacecraft operator Virgin to ancillary companies like manufacturers as well.
Virgin Galactic says that expanded protection is key to a successful operation with many suppliers and space-businessess.
Legislators who have rejected the waivers twice before should remember that extending these protections to suppliers costs the public absolutely nothing.
The waivers mimic those that exempt ski areas from lawsuits by folks who voluntarily slide down mountains at high speeds on skinny waxed boards; they apply only to passengers like Ashton Kutcher and Victoria Principal who have paid six figures to be strapped inside a tube powered by rocket fuel for a ride into suborbital space. If there is gross negligence, all waivers are off. And if you get hit by a piece of falling debris, you can still sue. This doesn’t apply to people on the ground.
It may be tempting to turn the Spaceport into a partisan blame game, but that kind of debate solves nothing and wastes time. The provision in the development agreement that bars Virgin from operating its aircraft at competing spaceports without permission expires at the end of December. Meanwhile, the company has cut a deal with a Middle East investment group to develop another spaceport in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
So will New Mexico give Sir Richard every reason to fly away and further justify its place at the top of Forbes list of “Death Spiral States?”
Or will it cement itself as a leading partner in what could be an emerging private-sector industry?
The Legislature re-convenes Jan. 15. Lawmakers should finally take this last step and help taxpayers’ Spaceport investment take off.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.