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Bipartisan Bid for Spaceport Bill

SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez and lawmakers from both parties wrote a letter Thursday to legislators who voted against the liability protections for New Mexico spacecraft manufacturers earlier this week urging them to reconsider the legislation.

The letter was sent to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Business and Industry Committee, where versions of the bill are stuck after neither committee took action following hearings this week.

The letter was co-signed by the legislation’s House and Senate sponsors, Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and Rep. James White, R-Albuquerque. Also signing were Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Richard Martinez, D-Española, and Rep. Dona Irwin, D-Deming, a member of the House business committee.

The governor said the legislation to limit space travelers’ ability to sue spacecraft parts manufacturers in case of malfunction is critical to lure new companies to open shop at Spaceport America near Las Cruces, which was built with the help of $209 million in taxpayer dollars. Voting against it, she wrote, is a “significant setback” for state economic development.

“We encourage lawmakers to consider the spaceport’s economic potential and the need to allow and promote development at the facility by making New Mexico competitive with other states pursuing growth through commercial space travel,” the governor wrote, asking lawmakers to reconsider the measure this session to “put the spaceport back on track for long term success.”

Critics, particularly the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, have lobbied that the rule could jeopardize passenger safety by allowing parts manufacturers to act recklessly in an effort to cut space travel costs without fear of a lawsuit in case something goes wrong with their equipment. Trips to suborbital space are being sold for $200,000 per person.

Several lawmakers who voted against the legislation said Thursday that the governor’s letter pushing for reconsideration would not sway their original votes.

“This kind of pressure is going to make me say no even more so. I can’t believe she has the gall to do this,” said Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, a member of the Business and Industry Committee.

The Journal reported Thursday that the Trial Lawyers Association has donated $67,000 to 25 current state representatives since 2010, including $10,000 given to four members of the House Business and Industry Committee. Virgin Galactic just began lobbying the Legislature this year, with more than $14,000 given to members of House and Senate committees expected to hear the liability bill. Both groups, however, say the campaign contributions were not intended to get votes on the liability issue.

The letter also criticized lawmakers for giving greater consideration to small lobbyist donations than to the state’s multimillion-dollar spaceport investment.

Asked whether the House committee would reconsider the spaceport liability bill after the governor’s request, Business and Industry Chairwoman Debbie Rodella, D-Española, said, “I’m sorry; I don’t know what you’re referring to.” Rodella at the time of the interview was leaving an open-door meeting where she and other committee members who voted against the bill were overheard discussing the governor’s letter.

House Speaker Ben Luján, D-Nambé, said Thursday that he intends to talk to Rodella about the spaceport legislation.

“That should at least get a review in the (House) Judiciary Committee,” Lujan said in an interview.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who voted against the legislation, said there isn’t talk among the committee about a reconsideration vote.

“We heard the debate,” Wirth said. “I just worry that when we go down this road of using economic development to basically sacrifice … access to the court system, it’s a pretty slippery slope.”
— This article appeared on page A6 of the Albuquerque Journal