April 6, 2007

N.M. County Passes Spaceport Tax

LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- Voters in a southern New Mexico county have approved a tax to raise an estimated $49 million toward a $198 million tourism spaceport, according to unofficial returns Thursday.

Residents of Dona Ana County voted on the sales tax Tuesday in what backers said was a make-or-break election for the state-supported Spaceport America.

"This positive vote for the spaceport ballot initiative means America's new frontier begins in southern New Mexico," Gov. Bill Richardson said Thursday. "I'm proud that the people of Dona Ana County chose a high-tech and high-wage future, with better math and science education, and expanded opportunities for young men and women right here in New Mexico."

The complex would cover 27 square miles of desert near White Sands Missile Range, where the U.S. launched its first rocket after World War II. Its anchor tenant would be British millionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

Branson envisions starting suborbital rocket flights, at about $200,000 a person, in 2009. Eventually, the spaceport could offer trips into orbit and beyond.

Unofficial results from the county clerk's office showed the tax leading by 265 votes out of more than 17,000 cast, and only 108 provisional ballots were left to be counted, county election supervisor Lynn Ellins said.

Provisional ballots are cast by people whose names don't appear on the voting roster or who cannot meet identification requirements. The clerk's office must check each ballot to make sure the person is registered and hadn't already voted.

"New Mexico is really poised now to be the launchpad for this whole personal space flight industry," said Rick Homans, the state economic development secretary.

The voting results will probably encourage investors, banks and other governments considering backing the industry, he said.

Critics argued that the venture is too risky and that the tax would be a better spent on existing county problems.

"We shouldn't be taxing the poor. This spaceport is a state project, it should be funded statewide," said Dona Ana County Commissioner Oscar Vasquez Butler. "We have a lot of poverty, we have a lot of needs in terms of sewers, roads and drainage and 45 percent of our children are without health care."