In April 2007, voters in Doña Ana County, New Mexico, which includes Las Cruces, voted for a quarter-percent gross receipts tax that would be used primarily help fund construction of Spaceport America, with a portion going towards educational programs. A year later, voters in Sierra County, where the spaceport is located, approved the same tax. Now, however, both uses of the tax are under fire in the New Mexico Legislature, with bills pending to alter the use of those tax funds that must pass before the legislature adjourns on Thursday or die.
In the state Senate, Sen. Lee Cotter (R-Las Cruces) introduced SB 172, a bill that would require funds collected by the tax for the spaceport (three quarters of the tax revenue) be used solely for debt service on the bonds sold for spaceport construction or to begin paying off those bonds early. Currently, any excess if funds after interest is paid—currently about $600,000 per year—is used to support spaceport operations. The bill has made it through one Senate committee and is pending approval of another.
In an op-ed in the Las Cruces Sun-News a week ago, Cotter argued that the use of tax funds to support spaceport operations constituted a “bait and switch” for taxpayers. “Every dollar spent on daily operations extends the increase in taxes for years to come, injuring our local taxpayers,” he wrote.
Rick Holdridge, chairman of the board of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, countered in an op-ed Sunday in the same newspaper that using the funds for spaceport operations is crucial right now, as the spaceport transitions to operations. “Now is not the time to withdraw support, just when the spaceport is poised to start paying dividends,” he wrote, adding that the decision to use the tax revenue in this way has been approved by local officials several times in public meetings.
The other one quarter of the spaceport tax revenue that is earmarked to support educational programs is also under scrutiny in Santa Fe. HB 13 would count that revenue when making calculations of what state aid the districts receive; in essence, the bill would reduce the aid districts in the two counties receive by the amount of funding they get from the spaceport tax—a cut from what they’re getting now. That bill has already passed the New Mexico House and is in committee in the state Senate. That is causing concern in Las Cruces, the Sun-News reported Sunday, although the impact of the bill, even if it does pass and is signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez, remains unclear.