Space Race: After eight years and more than $200 million, Spaceport America still hasn’t taken off. Virgin Galactic, the spaceport’s main tenant, has strongly pressured lawmakers to pass a law that would shelter spacecraft manufacturers and suppliers from liability, should anything go wrong in outer space. The company denies that it’s threatening to pull out of the deal if it doesn’t get its way, but critics aren’t buying it. The issue eerily resembles how pro sports franchises in bigger states hold the public hostage for shiny, new, taxpayer-subsidized stadiums.
The fix: State Rep. James White, R-Bernalillo, says he’s working on a liability exemption bill to requiring spaceport passengers to sign an agreement promising not to sue if something happens to them. The informed consent is one of the seven points listed in Economic Development Department Secretary Jon Barela’s New Century Economy plan.
Will it work? Virgin Galactic’s lease payments are supposed to generate at least $250 million over two decades, yet the company has yet to make a payment to the state, despite being in contract for years. As the anchor tenant of an untested industry, Virgin Galactic is in a position to threaten the state to get what it wants. But many questions remain as to how the spaceport, along with more public concessions to Virgin Galactic, will benefit New Mexico’s economy and its taxpayers.
NMFAkin’ It: The New Mexico Finance Authority, the body responsible for helping fund state and local infrastructure projects, faked one of its audits last year.
The fix: White and state Sen. Tim Keller, D-Bernalillo, have introduced a bill limiting the governor’s power over the agency by allowing the Legislature to appoint some board members. Their bill also requires NMFA’s audit committee to include a certified public accountant.
Will it work? It might: The legislation is modeled after another of Keller’s reform efforts, which successfully decentralized the governor’s control over the powerful State Investment Council. “Unfortunately, it’s taken a scandal to make changes [to NMFA],” Keller tells SFR.
Scandalized: Over the past few years, many state and local officials have been embroiled in various corruption scandals.
The fix: State Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Bernalillo, wants to add a non-mandatory year of prison to public officials found guilty of bribery, embezzlement or unlawfully raiding the public coffers, among other acts of corruption that are fourth-degree felonies or above. It also bars guilty officials from lobbying and bidding for public contracts in the future.
Will it work? While Gentry’s bill will likely discourage some corruption, problems still exist in the justice system, where public officials indicted under corruption charges have walked free, sometimes without a trial (witness former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, now Vigil-Gutierrez, who was indicted on corruption charges in 2009 but whose trial was dropped this past November).
Lawmakers also have special immunities. Article 4, Section 13 of the state Constitution says state legislators “shall, in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective houses, and on going to and returning from the same.” Some lawmakers have taken that to mean they don’t need to pay their speeding tickets, although US Sen. Tom Udall, while serving as New Mexico’s former attorney general, interpreted such acts as a “breach of the peace.”
“Historically, it’s meant to make sure there’s no interference with legislators attending sessions,” Tracey Kimball, a librarian with the Legislative Council Service, tells SFR. “In the territorial days, there were stories about Democrats leaving chamber and Republicans having the locks changed.”
Gentry acknowledges that legislators can only do so much about the problem, given the many outside obstacles.
“All we can do from legislative end is send a clear message that this isn’t going to be tolerated anymore,” he tells SFR.
Commish Dish: The Public Regulation Commission, which regulates utility companies, has been the subject of several recent scandals. To qualify for the commission, candidates need only be 18 years old, live in the district they represent and not be convicted felons. A voter-approved constitutional amendment requires the Legislature to establish better qualifications.
The fix: A bill by Keller and state Rep. Paul Bandy, R-San Juan, would require commissioners to have a bachelor’s degree and at least seven years of relevant work experience.
Will it work? The bill is probably more rigorous than the Legislature is willing to allow, and Keller admits that it’s part of a strategy “as a starting point we want to negotiate from.”
“You never want to start out soft,” he says, adding that he expects the qualifications to change to either a college degree or relevant work experience, instead of both.
Out of Luck: The New Mexico Legislative Lottery Scholarship, which pays for New Mexico students’ tuition to higher-education institutions as long as they maintain a 2.5 GPA, is projected to run out of funding this year.
The fix: White’s ideas to keep the fund afloat include reducing the funding for students attending four-year universities, and focusing on funding for two-year stints. He also wants to hold some funding for four-year university students until their junior year, giving them an incentive to complete their college education.
Will it work? It has to: If the lottery scholarship isn’t reformed, it won’t be available in the future.