While most people will be focusing their attention today on the Democratic presidential primary in Pennsylvania, the space industry, in particular the entrepreneurial NewSpace sector, will instead be paying attention a special election today in Sierra County, New Mexico. At stake: a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax in the county, with the proceeds going towards the development of Spaceport America, the commercial spaceport planned for southern New Mexico that will be used by Virgin Galactic, among others.
The tax itself will contribute only a tiny fraction of the project’s $198-million cost: about $2.3 million. Yet the election is considered key to the spaceport’s development. A similar tax was narrowly approved a year ago in neighboring, more populous Doña Ana County, which includes the city of Las Cruces. However, because of a provision of state law, the money that the tax would have collected there could not be spent until a spaceport “tax district” is created, and that can’t be done until another county or locality approves the tax. That puts pressure on Sierra County to approve the tax, or else the spaceport will face a funding shortfall of over $50 million. (Officials in a third county, Otero, have stated that they plan their own tax referendum later this year—but only if the tax passes in Sierra County.) “At this point there is not a back-up plan” if the tax fails in Sierra, Steve Landeene, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, told the Las Cruces Sun News.
It’s not surprising, then, that spaceport advocates have been putting on a full-court press in the last couple of weeks. Spaceport officials have announced a number of agreements with potential spaceport users, from sounding rocket developer UP Aerospace to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. New Mexico’s lieutenant governor, Diane Denish, also stumped for the tax in the county last week. The biggest incentive, though, might come from Virgin Galactic, which is offering to take one local resident to space for free each year once they begin operations at the spaceport.
Far and away the largest city in Sierra County is Truth or Consequences. For spaceport advocates, that’s a pretty apt description of what this election represents for them.