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Spaceport Liability Accord Claimed

SANTA FE, N.M. — Democratic leaders said Tuesday that an agreement has been reached on limited-liability legislation for Spaceport America and predicted the contentious issue soon would be settled, but some Republicans said they hadn’t seen the deal.

The Democratic leadership said their announcement followed negotiations that began last summer between Virgin Galactic and the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association.

A bill reflecting the agreement was expected to be introduced as early as today, and the Democratic lawmakers suggested it would have bipartisan support.

Republican leaders, however, didn’t attend the hastily called news conference.

“We haven’t seen the details of any deal yet,” said House Republican Whip Nate Gentry of Albuquerque. “We’re hopeful that, whatever it is, is something that will allow the spaceport to be successful.”

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s office was noncommittal. Her spokesman said she met with Virgin Galactic officials on Tuesday “and is hopeful that the final legislation that passes will lead to the company’s commitment to stay in New Mexico, and that it will lead to making New Mexico capable of attracting other space industry business.”

Messages left for Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides were not immediately returned.

Virgin Galactic and spaceport supporters have been pressing lawmakers to extend protection from lawsuits by passengers — which is currently afforded to spacecraft operators — to manufacturers who provide the spacecraft parts.

The company says that without the expanded legal protection, new companies won’t locate at the site, about 30 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences, and instead will go to states that shield manufacturers.

Supporters have suggested that would stymie growth at the spaceport and imperil New Mexico’s $209 million investment in the facility.

Ray Vargas, president of the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, and House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, nudged the two sides to the negotiating table.

The nudging “recently became a shove,” said Vargas, who participated in the negotiations. “As the (legislative) session got nearer, the urgency became greater.”

Vargas said the agreement announced by Democratic leaders was worked out between Virgin Galactic and the trial lawyers.

He said the proposed legislation would add component manufacturers to the existing law, providing them the same limited immunity from lawsuits by space travelers that operators such as Virgin Galactic now have, Vargas said.

To qualify for the immunity, the companies would have to prove they have at least $1 million in liability insurance. Details of the bill and the insurance requirement, which Vargas said also would include Virgin Galactic, were not available Tuesday.

Lawsuits still could be brought by passengers under limited circumstances, and there would be no cap on what they could recover, Vargas said.

The trial lawyers’ group had complained that legislation introduced for manufacturers the past couple of years was overly broad, rolling back legal protections.

“When we sat down and we figured out what they really needed, and they understood what our concerns were, we weren’t that far apart,” Vargas said.

Sanchez said the sponsors of the legislation would include Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales.

“If it’s a bipartisan effort, I think it should go through the Legislature pretty smoothly,” Sanchez said.

“This is the way it should be up here,” said Speaker Martinez, who said it sometimes takes several years to resolve important issues.

He suggested the legislation would “move along quickly.”

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal