Inside the Capitol

Friday, December 23, 2005

1-2 When Sir Richard and Gov. Richardson Get Together...

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- When wildly successful Sir Richard Branson and New Mexico's fast-forward Gov. Bill Richardson get together on something, the world had better take notice, even if it's a pie-in-the-sky plan to build the world's first spaceport for private vehicles.
Even more important than the world taking notice is for New Mexico taxpayers to snap to attention. The state of New Mexico will pay $135 million and local and federal governments will kick in the remaining $90 million of the projected $225 million price tag.
The plan is for Sir Richard to contribute nothing until he moves in. Then he will pay a million bucks a year rent. In a little over two centuries, he'll have that sucker paid off.
All we've been told so far is that the local money will come from the people of southern New Mexico in the form of a gross receipts tax increase. The spaceport will be near the Sierra/Dona Ana county line. Will it be just the people of those two counties who will pay?
Or will it be everyone in southern New Mexico? From the looks of our governor's travels to promote the spaceport, it may be everyone down south.
And how big a share of the remaining $90 million will southern New Mexico local governments pay? If they pick up half the tab, New Mexicans at the state and local levels will be assuming 80 percent of the $225 million cost.
When it comes to transportation, the federal government usually picks up most of the check. But spaceports are new territory for the feds. They like highways, railroads and airports because every member of Congress gets some of those goodies.
But if only two U.S. senators and one U.S. representative, from a small state, benefit from the nation's first private spaceport, how generous are the other 582 members of Congress likely to be? They also can point out that $35 million of the state's share comes from federal highway allotments.
It is important that New Mexicans begin thinking about this quickly. The New Mexico Legislature convenes on Jan. 17. That's when the governor will ask for $100 million in severance tax bonds, spread over the next three years.
How likely are lawmakers to spring for the funding? New Mexico currently is awash in severance tax receipts from oil and gas. So we can afford it, if we deem the spaceport construction a priority.
Lawmakers have been well-informed about the proposal. The day the grand announcement was made in mid-December at Santa Fe's Eldorado Hotel, legislators were hosted at a preliminary reception
There, they met Sir Richard and billionaire actress/skin care products magnate Victoria Principal, who has forked over $200,000 to be on the first launch with Branson.
It probably isn't necessary to say that the two fabulously successful entrepreneurs were charming and convincing. We can say that when the leaders of the House and Senate were given an opportunity to comment at the news conference, House Speaker Ben Lujan, of Nambe, guaranteed passage of the money.
Senate President Pro Tem Ben Altamirano, of Silver City, was less forceful, but noted that although it sounds like a lot of money, it is a good investment. He then added that if his Social Security check were to increase 10-fold, he could just about afford to take one of those trips.
Both Lujan and Altamirano are Democrats, but many Republicans also like the idea of a huge economic development investment in southern New Mexico. Much of the Republican legislative leadership is from nearby districts
So approval and implementation are on a fast track even though there hasn't been much coverage of the issue yet. As this is being written, the state's biggest newspaper has only mentioned it as a breaking story. It has ventured no editorial opinion and given the matter no in-depth coverage.
But, we'll be doing that in coming days and weeks as our Legislature takes 30 days to debate one of the biggest economic development issues in our state's history.
MON, 1-2-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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