ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Negotiations to lock space tourism company Virgin Galactic into a long-term lease at the spaceport New Mexico taxpayers built for it are on hold while a proposal to broaden liability exemptions for space companies lingers in the Legislature, Gov. Susana Martinez said Tuesday.
"We are hoping the bill passes, then we will continue discussions," Martinez said following a luncheon address to state business leaders.
Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides, who also spoke to the group, declined to comment directly on the company's commitment to New Mexico, saying only that both parties are working in good faith to resolve a "laundry list" of issues.
The quarter-of-a-billion Spaceport America was built by taxpayers under an agreement with British businessman Richard Branson's company. But Virgin Galactic has refused to enter a binding lease, citing, among other things, the state's inability to compete in the commercial space arena without the law.
Under terms of the development agreement signed in 2008, the state contends that Virgin was obligated to enter its long-term lease as the anchor tenant at Spaceport American in January. The company has made three months of rent payments but noted it was doing so under protest and without agreeing to enter the long-term lease that calls for things like a $2 million deposit and guaranteed payments to the state for a minimum number of flights.
Whitesides hinted last year that the company could leave New Mexico if lawmakers failed for a second year to pass a bill that would extend legal liability exemptions to space parts suppliers. He and the governor have both said the legislation, which would protect companies from lawsuits by passengers on space flights, is necessary for New Mexico to compete with states like Texas, Florida and Colorado, which already have the exemption on the books and are developing their own spaceports.
Martinez noted that several space companies have already passed over New Mexico for other states with friendlier laws.
"We want these forward looking companies to land in New Mexico," Martinez said.
The governor said she is hopeful the bill will make it to her desk.
"And George," she said to Whitesides, "once I sign this bill, I am looking forward to Virgin Galactic making New Mexico its home for many, many years to come."