Inside the Capitol

Thursday, January 12, 2006

1-16 Will Spaceport public-Private Partnership Work?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Gov. Bill Richardson can be expected to have numerous naysayers, concerned about his daring initiatives such as a regional railroad and a spaceport.
But some of his detractors come from within the national Democratic Party. And that can be tough on a guy with national ambitions.
Political opponents are the usual suspects to find fault with anything Richardson does. Those problems are confronted by every leader. But when members of your own party become concerned, it's a different story.
And that's what has been happening, almost since Richardson took office. The bold moves that Richardson promised were seen by some Democrats as too bold for the image of a United States president. He has been called "unpresidential" for some of his ideas and actions.
I asked him about that recently. I asked if he might not want to cut back on his big ideas in order to enhance his national ambitions. Richardson said that's not him and that it doesn't bother him.
What this means is that some of Richardson's big promotions designed to help the state aren't necessarily helping him reach national prominence as is charged by his detractors. Richardson knows that and he is doing it anyway.
Evidently he feels that if his initiatives are successful they will end up helping him in the long run. Gov. Michael Dukakis used his Massachusetts Miracle to help gain the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Unfortunately that miracle began fizzling out during the general election.
Richardson's most recent initiative also is his most daring, involving a huge public-private partnership to build and operate the world's first commercial spaceport.
Public-private partnerships have become very popular and Richardson is a major advocate. The combination of economic and political power produces an irresistible force.
The problem is that the two are meant to be a check and balance on each other. There is no check on an irresistible force. Free enterprise is lost amid subsidies, incentives, tax-breaks and insider privilege, with taxpayers footing the bill.
Is that what is about to happen with the spaceport? Many questions should be asked and answered before New Mexico decides to go ahead with the project.
I want to see that project be successful as much as any New Mexican. It is an exciting concept. But it must be more than a roll of the dice.
Before New Mexico's lawmakers, who go into session for a brief 30 days beginning Tuesday, should approve an initial $33 million payment toward the construction of a spaceport, they must ask how this public-private partnership is going to work.
How is New Mexico's $225 million investment going to pay off? All we've heard so far is that Virgin Galactic will pay $1 million a year in rent.
We know there will be jobs and that those people will pay taxes. Will Virgin Galactic also pay taxes? Will it cover all operating expenses? Will it manage the spaceport or will the state? Who will assume liability for spacecraft accidents?
If the 2006 Legislature gives a go-ahead for the project, the next step is the approval of the people of southern New Mexico, who must impose a local option gross receipts tax upon themselves.
We haven't yet heard exactly what is included in "southern New Mexico," but if lawmakers don't ask all the right questions, you can bet the people who are about to be taxed will ask them.
Virgin owner Sir Richard Branson says that if New Mexicans do decide to blast off with this project, the governor and state will be recognized for a love of adventure and a willingness to take chances.
He calls that recognition "branding" a term currently quite popular in the world of marketing. Maybe it will attract many people to New Mexico. Whether it will attract many votes to our governor is another question, but he appears willing to take that chance.
MON, 1-16-06

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



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