Potential SpaceX Launch Site in Texas Competes with Other Priorities as Florida Moves Forward

Gov. Rick Perry. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)
Gov. Rick Perry. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry prides himself on running a state government that is lean, with light regulations and low taxes to attract employers. This business friendly approach appears to be complicating efforts to put together a financial package that will convince SpaceX to locate a commercial launch facility near Brownsville.

An underfunded education system and health care reform are just a sample of the issues facing lawmakers in the upcoming session. With the University of Texas Board of Regents also pushing to accelerate creation of a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley, the proposed space venture will not even be the biggest local economic development cause.

Still, some officials think the state’s ability to offer a blank canvas for a dedicated commercial rocket launch site in the same state where SpaceX already tests its rocket engines could prove attractive, even if Texas cannot match the money being waved by some competitors.

“There is a point that we’re not going to be able to reach and I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to be as financially competitive as either one of those, Florida or Puerto Rico,” said state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville. “I’m also sensitive to the fact that these are taxpayer dollars that we should still be reasonable with how much we offer.”

Oliveira recently attended a meeting with staff to discuss creating a fund to promote aerospace businesses picking Texas. He said the state had pledged $3.2 million toward enticing SpaceX. Texas’ economic development arm, contained within the governor’s office, does not comment on its negotiations. The local economic development council is expected to put up about another $3 million. But Oliveira’s heard talk of Florida offering upward of $10 million. A spokesperson with Space Florida, the state’s dedicated space agency, did not return a call seeking comment.

Last year, the city of Midland put together a package worth more than $10 million to lure XCOR Aerospace from California to the Lone Star State. That package contained no state funding, although Gov. Perry was happy to attend unveiling ceremony to boast about how the state’s business-friendly policies attracts quality companies like XCOR.

A key difference is that while Midland is rich in oil and gas, the Brownsville area  is much poorer. So, the local development authority can’t come up nearly the same amount of money, which forces it to rely on state funding that is limited by the governor’s policies.

The other problem is that keeping taxes and spending low can cause problems to eventually pile up that require larger expenditures. And any failure to deal with basic infrastructural needs — such as roads and schools — can have a negative impact on the business climate.

Perry, who is fresh off a failed bid at the Presidency and appears to be looking forward to 2016, is not necessarily focused on those problems.

And so far, the issues he’s [Perry’s] promoted for the new legislative session that begins Jan. 8 — abortion restrictions, drug testing of welfare recipients, spending caps and rejecting federal health care — make up the same agenda he’d tout on the presidential campaign trail.

As Perry mulls his future, many Austin political watchers say the Republican’s national ambitions are certain to influence the legislative session.

The risk, they say, is whether his insistence on tightly held budget reins and fiercely conservative topics could sabotage efforts to fix looming state problems, such as deteriorating highways, water shortages, public school funding and higher education costs.

Those big topics require commitments in which Perry has shown little interest, including building broad-based consensus and obligating more government spending.

“Making the tough decisions will anger the very constituency that he will want to appeal to during a presidential campaign, which is the tea party,” said political consultant Mark Sanders.

“The tea party wants one thing and one thing only: less spending and less government. So, if you’re arguing anything that expands services or expands government, you’ll have a tough time,” said Sanders, who was a top aide to candidates who lost to Perry in two runs for governor.

Meanwhile, Florida is moving forward with efforts to obtain title to NASA-controlled land north of the Kennedy Space Center for a new launch facility.  The space agency is reviewing a proposal submitted in September.

The state is pressing forward with studies related to the commercial launch complex it has proposed establishing at the north end of Kennedy Space Center, while awaiting word on whether NASA will make the property available.

Space Florida recently asked interested companies to describe launch and recovery operations they might pursue at the proposed “Shiloh” complex, named for the citrus community located there before NASA seized the land to support Apollo program moon missions. That information will inform environmental studies of impacts to roughly 150 acres that fall within the Merritt Island Wildlife National Refuge near the the Brevard-Volusia county line.

“We’ll initiate our environmental assessments around the kind of operating launch profiles, the concepts of operations that we receive back from industry,” Space Florida President Frank DiBello said.

The state requested title to the land from NASA last September, citing market demand for a launch complex that operated near but independently from existing Cape facilities controlled by NASA and the Air Force’s Eastern Range. SpaceX is known to be pursuing such a site in locations across the country, including Texas and Georgia.

State and local officials in Florida have been willing to spend a considerable amount of money on incentives for companies to locate to the Space Coast, which was left reeling by the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.