2018 State Legislature: Bill would allow spaceport to shield records

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Lawmakers are proposing to create a carve-out in the state’s open records law for Spaceport America that would allow it to keep secret any information about companies or government agencies blasting rockets from the Southern New Mexico site.

The Spaceport Authority, which runs the $220 million public facility, has pushed in recent years to exempt part of its work from the Inspection of Public Records Act, arguing it needs to ensure at least some measure of confidentiality to high-tech aerospace companies that might be interested in doing business at the center near Truth or Consequences.

Though boosters have pointed to the spaceport as a potential economic driver for the southern end of the state, its high cost has drawn criticism and raised concerns about proposals to shield information about its work or finances from the public.

Transparency advocates argue that as long as taxpayers own the spaceport – and are still paying off its construction – the controversial facility’s records should remain open to the public. And the facility is already facing scrutiny for its handling of public records requests from journalists.

“The stakeholders in this public facility are the taxpayers,” said Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. “We should not allow out-of-state businesses to dictate state policy.”

Senate Bill 98, the Commercial Aerospace Protection Act, would exempt from the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act “customer information” unless the customer – such as a spaceflight company – waives confidentiality.

All records related to a customer could fall under “customer information,” according to the bipartisan bill, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, a Las Cruces Democrat, and Sen. William Burt, a Republican from Alamogordo.

The bill is similar to a measure proposed last year, which died in committee.

But in arguing for that bill, Spaceport Authority CEO Daniel Hicks told a Senate committee last year that companies eyeing the facility have raised concerns that trade secrets or even just the details of development plans could be obtained by competitors if they are subject to the state’s transparency law.

The Foundation for Open Government has countered that the bill is too broad. Just because a company works at the spaceport, St. Cyr argues, does not mean internal documents would be subject to the state’s public records law – only information turned over to the state.

The public might want to know what companies are paying for space at the facility or how work at the site might affect the environment, he said.

Meanwhile, some news organizations have accused Spaceport America of violating the state’s open records law. The news website NMPolitics.net, for example, has asked the state attorney general to look into the spaceport’s redaction of lease agreements and its responses – or lack of responses – to other public records requests.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.