Senate Passes Spaceport Waiver

SANTA FE – Legislation to expand the state’s spaceport liability waiver to include spacecraft manufacturers and suppliers unanimously passed the Senate on Wednesday without debate or discussion.

Senate Bill 240 will now go to the House for consideration.

“I would hope in the House that we would have the same cooperation, and that they would move as quickly as we have,” said Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, the bill’s sponsor and Senate president pro tem.

The bill is proposed as a tool to help recruit new commercial aerospace companies to relocate to New Mexico’s $209 million spaceport, where spaceflight operator Virgin Galactic is the primary tenant.

Spacecraft operators are already protected from some lawsuits filed by passengers who sign a liability waiver, but Virgin Galactic says that protection needs to be extended to manufacturers and suppliers before those companies will move to Spaceport America, southeast of Truth or Consequences.

The expanded spaceport liability waiver failed twice in past legislative sessions after the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association voiced concern that the legislation went too far in rolling back legal protections for passengers.

But the effort appears to have momentum this session after Virgin Galactic and the trial lawyers group announced last week that they had reached a compromise and SB 240 was introduced.

“Virgin Galactic is thrilled with the fast track in the Senate and look forward to the bill being heard in the House,” company Vice President Bruce Jackson said in a statement.

The full Senate voted 34-0 Wednesday to approve the bill, with eight senators not voting. Earlier this week, the bill unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, a committee that killed the spaceport liability waiver bill in 2012.

“What it shows is once people start coming together and working out their differences, how supportive we can all be,” Papen said.

The compromise in the spaceport liability bill is centered on a requirement that all commercial aerospace companies carry a liability insurance policy of at least $1 million. The lawyers group has said the insurance policy will help ensure companies that qualify for legal protections are legitimate.

The liability waiver would prohibit spaceflight passengers from filing lawsuits against aerospace companies except in cases in which a company’s operations indicate “reckless disregard” for passenger safety. The legal protections would not affect the legal rights of residents on the ground affected by an accident. — This article appeared on page A6 of the Albuquerque Journal