Senate OKs key piece of spaceport plan

By Deborah Baker

SANTA FE — A key element of Gov. Bill Richardson’s plan for a spaceport in southern New Mexico won overwhelming support from the Senate on Saturday.

By a vote of 36-2, lawmakers approved a measure that authorizes cities and counties to increase gross receipts taxes — with voter approval — to finace the spaceport and related local activities.

The money raised by the special tax would supplement proposed state and federal spending on the $225 million Southwest Regional Spaceport in Sierra County.

The Richardson administration envisions the spaceport as the hub of a new space tourism industry. British tycoon Richard Branson says his company, Virgin Galactic, would put its headquarters at the facility and launch tourists on suborbital flights from the site.

The governor has asked lawmakers to approve $100 million over the next three years from capital projects funds for the spaceport, and $25 million this year from state transportation funds. Another $10 million already is available.

It isn’t clear how much of the remaining $90 million would come from the federal government and how much from nearby communities, such as Las Cruces. The Economic Development Department projects it could count on at least $30 million raised locally.

Under the legislation, gross receipts taxes could be increased up to one-half percent to help pay for infrastructure at the spaceport, such as roads, water and a runway. Communities would keep 25 percent of the revenue raised by the tax increase, to be used for spaceport-related projects — museums or tourism promotion, for example.

The legislation had strong bipartisan support and was sponsored by a Republican, Sen. Leonard Lee Rawson of Las Cruces. He likened the spaceport to an airport — built with public funds, but with private companies paying to use it.