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Spaceport tax divides voters in N.M. county

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know taxes are rarely popular in a community that boasts a lot of retirees.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know taxes are rarely popular in a community that boasts a lot of retirees.

Sierra County residents face a decision on a big hurdle for New Mexico's spaceport: Will they help finance the $200 million project or send a proposed quarter-cent gross receipts sales tax downrange?

Voters go to the polls Tuesday. In neighboring Dona Ana County, the tax passed last spring by just 270 votes among more than 17,000 cast.

Sierra County's vote is critical because a tax district to fund construction at Spaceport America needs approval by at least two counties. If it passes, agencies can begin collecting money.

Gov. Bill Richardson has been a strong advocate of the spaceport.

"The governor is very hopeful the vote will be successful and the project will move forward," said Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for Richardson. "The reality is the state has put in a lot of actual capital and committed a lot of time and energy to the project."

The tax would add a 25-cent charge to a $100 purchase. State lawmakers also have earmarked at least $110 million in capital outlay money over several years to help with startup costs.

In recent weeks, spaceport director Steve Landeene and other officials have worked to educate voters on what they see as the project's merits.

"If we can get the word out, I think we'll have a positive result," Landeene said. "When we met with groups, some people started out 100 percent against the tax. After we helped them understand what we're doing, the no votes shifted to yes."

One study estimates construction would mean $1 billion in economic development and 2,250 jobs within five years. Supporters say high-tech jobs will be created when the spaceport is fully operational.

Landeene said growth from development will improve access to goods and services such as health care for the county's 13,0000 residents, many of them retirees who are drawn to the area for its mild climate.

Another argument is that children will be exposed to science and technology.

Yet for some residents, it's all about the tax. Many don't want it.

"I support the spaceport. It's going to bring money to our area, regardless of whether the tax is approved," former county commissioner Leo Rivera said. "Taxes, to me, especially to benefit a private enterprise, I just don't see it."

B.T. Thedford, a retiree in Truth or Consequences, said: "If the big corporations are going to benefit from it, let them finance it."

Spaceport supporters compare the facility to an airport. Built, operated and maintained by government entities, they maintain it generates income for the community as companies lease building space and pay user fees.

As the vote approached, there were signs of tension between supporters and opponents. April Schmidlapp, who organized an opponents' rally Saturday, complained of dirty campaign tactics by tax supporters.

Landeene estimated each resident might pay $10 annually in increased gross-receipts taxes if the measure passes. But he said residents would save $35 in gasoline costs if better access to goods and services helped avoid just one 80-mile trip to Las Cruces.

He said he encourages residents to replace the word "tax" with "investment."

"There are so many positives here," Landeene said. "You have to look deeper than the word 'tax.' If you peel back that onion, you will see that the true value to the community runs deep."

Much of the publicity surrounding the desert site for the spaceport, located about 30 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences, has centered on $200,000 rocket rides for space tourists.

Virgin Galactic is teaming with aerospace designer Burt Rutan to build a craft that will take passengers 62 miles above earth — the mark where space begins. Test flights could begin this year.

If the vote passes, Virgin Galactic has even offered to fly one resident per year from the area on a free suborbital flight.

Landeene emphasized the spaceport will service many other kinds of missions.

For example, Colorado-based UP Aerospace last year sent up two suborbital rockets carrying commercial payloads. Supporters predict satellite launches are coming as space entrepreneurs commercialize a domain long held by NASA.

Many claim flights can be done on the cheap. When the spaceport is developed, one company even hopes to make it possible for Boy Scouts or high school students to send up an experiment.

"New Mexico is going to have a really nice infrastructure, from what it looks like," said Gene Nowaczyk, president of Payload Specialties, a Missouri-based firm. He said the company previously has operated in the Nevada desert.

"It's the perfect location but you don't have any infrastructure," Nowaczyk said. "To do problems that are complex with highly structured launch vehicles, you need permanent facilities."

Nowaczyk said New Mexico has an edge over spaceports planned in California, Texas and Florida because of favorable weather, limited air traffic and a wide-open site that isn't too remote.

Now, it's up to Sierra County residents to push the launch button — or abort the mission. Landeene said there are other options for pursuing the project if the vote fails but declined to discuss specifics.

For now, he's "cautiously optimistic" the vote will pass.

"Have we gotten the word out enough? If we did, then people have the education to make the informed decision and then the answer is going to be yes," he said. "If we didn't do enough, it might go the other way."