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Senator wants to limit Spaceport tax fund use

LAS CRUCES – Spaceport America has been partially funding operations with excess revenue gleaned from a gross receipts tax in Sierra and Doña Ana counties – a practice one state senator wants to ban but which the spaceport director says is necessary to keep the doors open.

For the past three years, the spaceport has benefited from a windfall in excess of payments made to service the debt on a $76.4 million in bonds and to a reserve fund. The spaceport has received a total $774,498 between fiscal year 2011 and fiscal 2013.

Sen. Lee Cotter, R-Las Cruces, has introduced Senate Bill 172, which would prohibit the spaceport from using excess money to pay for operational expenses. He said taxpayers in the two southern New Mexico counties agreed to pay off the construction bonds, not fund operations.

“It doesn’t follow the spirit of the agreement,” he said.

Three boards, including a mix of elected and appointed officials, approved allowing the spaceport to put the excess tax revenue toward operations. They are the New Mexico Finance Authority, the Spaceport America Regional Spaceport District and the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

The windfall is going to pay the electric bill – “which is not trivial” – and other basic operational costs, said Spaceport America Executive Director Christine Anderson.

“If I can’t keep the spaceport doors open, then I can’t secure the (taxpayers’) investment,” she said. “In a few years it probably won’t matter, but right now that is a lifeline to the success of the spaceport.”

The spaceport is awaiting the arrival of Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, and the revenue their launches will bring, she said.

“Once Virgin starts flying and the tourist center is open, we’re fine,” Anderson said. “Otherwise we’re putting in jeopardy the whole $212 million we’ve put into the spaceport so far.”

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