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Money Flows Before Spaceport Showdown

legislature 2012
Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque JournalBy James MonteleoneJournal Politics Writer

SANTA FE – Trial lawyers keen to kill legislation that would shield New Mexico spacecraft manufacturers from legal liability in case of space passenger injury since 2010 have donated $67,000 to 25 current state representatives.

Virgin Galactic, the anchor tenant of the Spaceport backing the expanded legal protections, was outspent nearly 5-to-1 as it made $14,000 in contributions – all during December of 2011.

Both sides said the money wasn’t meant to buy votes on the issue.

Donations from the lawyers’ political action committee included $5,000 to House Business and Industry Chairwoman Debbie Rodella, D-Española, and another $5,000 shared between business committee members Rep. Thomas Garcia, D-Ocate; Rep. David Chavez, R-Los Lunas; and Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan. All four representatives voted against the spaceport liability bill Tuesday.

The committee struck down the bill this week. Another version is stalled but pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard Martinez, D-Española, said Wednesday that he was disappointed by the amount of sway the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association had on his committee, which includes several lawyers, including Lisa Curtis, a past president of the association.

“We can’t let them mandate everything that goes through Senate Judiciary,” Martinez said of the attorneys association. “It’s really sad that these guys have such an influence on these committee members.”

However, Martinez said he’s still “holding out some hope” the Senate space liability bill could be reconsidered by one of the six members who opposed it in the Senate committee Tuesday.

Intended to encourage spacecraft manufacturers to relocate businesses to Spaceport America near Las Cruces, the legislative effort is in limbo after the House Business and Industry and Senate Judiciary committees earlier this week made no recommendations for the legal protection to receive further consideration in either chamber.

The opposition was driven by the Trial Lawyers Association, which argued the rule would grant unprecedented immunity to spacecraft manufacturers and potentially put New Mexico space travelers at unnecessary risk because the companies wouldn’t fear legal recourse in case a malfunction killed or injured passengers.

Lawyers association past president and lobbyist David J. Jaramillo said the campaign money given to legislators in 2010 was not intended to sway votes on a single issue like the spacecraft manufacturers’ liability bill, which was first proposed in 2011.

“It’s fair to say it’s not based up on any single issue or targeted to any specific issue,” Jaramillo said. “It’s to members across lots of committees, and we are generally supportive of people who are supportive of the civil justice system.”

The lawyers’ group contributed mostly to House members. Senator have not been up for election since 2008.

Virgin lobbyist Thomas Horan said the company’s contributions are intended as an introduction between the company and New Mexico lawmakers and not a vote-swaying tool.

“You just want to help people run for office and have them know who you are, because you’re going to be coming and talking to them about issues in the future,” Horan said. “You certainly aren’t buying your way into favor with contributions like we’ve made.”

Before the legislative session began in January, Virgin donated a total of $14,400 to lawmakers, primarily members of House and Senate committees expected to hear the liability bill, according to state records.

Those donations included $200 per person for most business and judiciary committee members in each chamber, $250 for committee chairs, and $1,000 to Republican and Democratic party leaders in each chamber. Gov. Susana Martinez’s political action committee also received a $1,000 donation.

This year was the first time the company reported state campaign donations or lobbying in New Mexico.

Virgin also has hired three lobbyists, including former House Speaker Raymond Sanchez, a Democrat, and former state Sen. Mickey Barnett, a Republican, to help sell their effort to lawmakers. Before the session began, those lobbyists provided extra money for committee chairs, including an extra $500 donation for House business committee chair Rodella – who voted against the bill – and an extra $250 for the Senate Judiciary chairman, Richard Martinez, who supports the effort.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal