The third installment of NMPolitics.net’s report on Spaceport America was published today: Transparency problems plague Spaceport America. The story details the problems the author has experienced getting information about Spaceport America’s operations from the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.
Spaceport America is a publicly owned government entity, so the law requires its financial and other dealings to be open to the public, with few exceptions.
And yet in 2017 the N.M. Spaceport Authority, the state agency that runs the spaceport, has violated the state’s transparency laws several times in response to requests for documents filed by NMPolitics.net, a citizen from Truth or Consequences, and a reporter with KTSM-TV in El Paso. Those violations, in addition to other possible infractions, blocked or delayed public access to information about the spaceport….
The Spaceport Authority blacked out information in some lease agreements with aerospace companies it provided to NMPolitics.net, including rent and fee schedules. That was done to “honor the rights that New Mexican state law provides to innovators, developers and entrepreneurs who seek to move their operations to our state,” said Melissa Kemper Force, the agency’s general counsel.
The violations and possible violations of transparency laws started in March when I and Patrick Hayes, the KTSM-TV reporter, asked for copies of the spaceport’s lease agreements with aerospace companies. I paid the fee of nearly $300 for copies of the documents. Hayes asked to bring his own equipment to digitize the records himself for free, which the state Attorney General’s Office says is allowed.
The Spaceport Authority rejected Hayes’ request, leaving him only the option of paying the $1-per-page fee if he wanted copies.
The Mojave Air and Space Port is governed by a five-member board elected by the local population. Lease agreements are included as part of meeting agendas that are published on the spaceport’s website. The board approved an amendment to Virgin Galactic’s lease of a test site earlier this month. See pages 16-17 of the document below.
This one deals with financing at Spaceport America. It requires a bit of understanding of the history of how it was funded.
So, here’s the back story: In 2007 and 2008, residents of Dona Ana and Sierra counties approved a quarter cent increase in the sales tax to help pay for the construction of Spaceport America, where billionaire Richard Branson plans to send rich people on suborbital joy rides.
The piece is fairly optimistic on the financial front, perhaps too much so. It examines positive financial impact on the local economy to date and projects forward to when Virgin Galactic begins flying commercially from the facility, possibly next year. (more…)
Plans for a visitor’s center at Spaceport America have continued to shrink due to a lack of funding and revenues. And that could pose significant risks to New Mexico’s plans to boost the local economy by attracting more than 200,000 visitors to the remote facility where Virgin Galactic plans to launch tourists into space.
In fact, the New Mexico Spaceport Authority appears to be going down the very path that its own Strategic Business Plan warns will result in a poor visitor experience and fewer tourists paying money to see the high-tech spaceport.
The New Mexico Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee has endorsed a bill that would prohibit Spaceport America from using excess taxes collected from Dona Ana and Sierra counties to fund its operations.
The measure, introduced by Republican Sen. Lee Cotter of Las Cruces, would require that funds collected from gross receipts taxes to pay off construction bond debt. Operational money would have to come out of the general state budget.
Residents of the two counties voted to impose a tax increase on themselves to help fund the $212 million spaceport located near the town of Truth or Consequences.
New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) Executive Director Christine Anderson, which oversees the spaceport, said she was disappointed in the committee’s decision.
Anderson said the measure, if approved by the Legislature, would cost the agency about $700,000 at what she called a “critical moment” for the Spaceport.
“That money has been acting as a lifeline for the Spaceport,” Anderson said. “If this bill is passed what I would need to do is go to the Legislature and ask the senators who voted for this bill if they will add the money to the authority’s budget at the cost to all the taxpayers in New Mexico. And that’s something I don’t want to do.”
Virgin Galactic, which is Spaceport America’s anchor tenant, is behind schedule on beginning commercial operations of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle from New Mexico. This has limited the revenues that NMSA can collect to maintain its operations.
Construction of Spaceport Unit Will Resume Albuquerque Journal
Construction of an aircraft rescue and firefighting building at Spaceport America, stalled since November, is scheduled to resume within three weeks.
The Spaceport Authority’s former executive director, Rick Homans, halted work on the $2.9 million building because of concerns about how the first-floor space would be used and whether it was sufficient to meet the needs of future tenants. The project had been launched by Homans’ predecessor Steve Landeene.
New Spaceport Authority executive director Christine Anderson said she lifted the stop-work order on March 11 after determining “that the original design was fine and we would move forward.”