Inside the Capitol

Friday, May 09, 2008

5-16 Spaceport Should Start Movinb

FRI, 5-16-08

SANTA FE - Sierra County's overwhelming approval of a spaceport tax is a huge step toward putting Spaceport America back on track.
Although the advocates implied that the gross receipts tax approval was necessary for the spaceport effort to continue, there was enough artful wording to make one suspect that a fallback position was hiding somewhere.
This column suggested that likelihood a month or so ago. It was denied, but a week before the election Lt. Gov. Diane Denish admitted that although there was no backup in case the vote failed, a Plan B would be developed quickly.
After all, why bet a $225 million state project on the vote of 3,000 people in one small county? That would be more politically irresponsible than even New Mexicans could imagine.
Although the Sierra County vote would not have been a deal breaker had it failed, it was extremely important. The spaceport creation had been predicated on creation of a regional taxing district.
Voters in Dona Ana County had narrowly approved joining that district over a year ago. A second political subdivision was needed to create a regional entity. As it turned out, it didn't have to be a county. Had the vote failed in Sierra County, a positive vote in one of its towns, such as Truth or Consequences, would have been sufficient.
But the 2-1 approval in Sierra County, with a 42 percent turnout at the polls, was such a pleasant surprise that the stalled spaceport creation should get back on track. Basically nothing happened after the narrow Dona Ana County victory.
Once again, I'm guessing, but it's backed up by 50 years of involvement with New Mexico politics. I think the closeness of the Dona Ana victory put a damper on spaceport enthusiasm. Las Cruces was the cradle of spaceport mania. Leaders in that community had been working on the idea for over 15 years.
The opposition came primarily from the Mesilla Valley south of Las Cruces. Activists in the area said the spaceport was OK but they didn't want to pay anything, and besides, the money really should go to helping people in the poverty-stricken area.
When the Sierra County vote neared, those activists then moved up the Rio Grande to make the same argument. Many political observers predicted that the more conservative voters in the T or C area would be likely to reject the spaceport.
Virgin Galactic had signed a memorandum of understanding to be the anchor tenant at the spaceport and promised that if the Dona Ana vote passed, it would sign a lease. But nothing happened.
Rick Homans then resigned as executive director of the Spaceport Authority to go into private business. A permanent replacement finally was named this past December. But still no lease and no announced progress on obtaining a federal license for the proposed spaceport.
Other disappointments included the departure of Starchaser Industries, which had made big promises in Las Cruces and problems of the Rocket Racing League, with headquarters in Las Cruces, to find enough competitors for events it intended to begin two years ago.
Then there was the disaster at the Mojave Spaceport in California that killed three people working on development of the spaceplane to be used by Virgin Galactic at New Mexico's spaceport. Will that slow the move to Spaceport America? Since Mojave was already licensed as a spaceport, will that slow federal licensing of other spaceports?
All this bad news was not lost on the New Mexico Legislature, which still hasn't come up with all the $225 million cost originally forecast for the project. Lawmakers seem to have lost interest.
Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, is being romanced by emerging spaceports in America and around the world. Dubai is one of those suitors. It doesn't have to worry about money, licensing or environmental impact studies.
But Sierra County's strong statement of confidence in Spaceport America should be just what is needed for everyone to get back on board.

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