Spaceport America Risks Becoming Even Bigger Money Pit

The Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space terminal hangar facility (center), Spaceport Operations Center (Left) and “Spaceway”
(Runway) at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

The second installment of NMPolitics.net’s five-part series on Spaceport America dropped today. Funding woes could ‘cripple’ NM spaceport as other states invest in space race

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 tax is supposed to expire in 2028 when the bonds used to fund construction are finally paid off. In the meantime, excess tax monies collected have been used to help plug holes in Spaceport America’s budget due to delays in Virgin Galactic beginning operations.

That has caused some controversy over whether that was the original intent of the measures voters approved.  Virgin Galactic’s lease payments are scheduled to go up next year, so that should even out the spaceport’s budget. So, the excess taxes could go to paying off the bonds early, right?

Not necessarily. Spaceport Executive Director Dan Hicks says he need more money to attract other tenants to the facility and compete with other spaceports across the country.  The funding would go to paying for a new runway, hangars, roads, utilities and other necessities.

Hicks wants a steady stream of income to fund these activities. And he’s got an idea about where to find it.

State Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, was among those who pledged to voters a decade ago that the local tax money would be used for initial construction of the spaceport and would sunset after 20 years. At the time, McCamley was a Doña Ana County commissioner and co-chaired the political action committee promoting approval of the tax.

McCamley sat in the back of the room listening as Hicks made his case for using the excess tax revenue for operations at this year’s June 2 tax board meeting. When Hicks told the board he believed the tax was intended to be perpetual, not sunset in 2028, McCamley sat back in his chair, laughed and shook his head.

In an interview, McCamley took no position on using the excess tax money for operations, saying that is up to the tax board. And he said a decision on whether to continue the tax beyond 2028 must come from an open discussion with voters.

Whether voters will agree to continue the tax, he predicted, will depend on the spaceport’s status at that time.

“The understanding is that [the tax] goes away,” McCamley said. “If the spaceport is a roaring success and people see all these jobs being created, maybe people will say this is worth continuing.”

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