The recent crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 in the Mojave Desert was a tragedy for the pilot that lost his life in the accident. It was also a setback for Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic, and the entire private space industry. However, for New Mexico taxpayers, it was only the latest and most vivid sign that building a Spaceport was not a wise use of tax dollars.
The transition from publicly-funded space travel (NASA) to a competitive, private-sector model was destined to be choppy and unpredictable. It is very much an open question how humans will travel safely and regularly into space in private spacecraft.
Even NASA with its multi-billion dollar budgets never quite figured out how to get humans back and forth form space routinely and regularly. The Space Shuttle was originally intended to launch as frequently as once a week. That didn’t come close to happening even in the best of times.
This all leads us to New Mexico where, at the behest of then Gov. Bill Richardson, our Legislature embarked our state upon a spaceport construction project at a cost to taxpayers of $220 million and counting.
A decade after this project was undertaken we have no idea what technologies will be used to fly people to space, whether companies can make space tourism profitable, and whether New Mexicans will benefit economically even if the space tourism industry succeeds.
Unfortunately, while Branson, Rutan, and other space pioneers are putting their own money and reputations on the line to make their space enterprises successful, the folks who unwisely got New Mexico into this mess cannot be held accountable and will suffer no personal losses from their actions.
Bill Richardson is not lying awake at night wondering if New Mexico’s Spaceport succeeds and I know of no legislator or other elected official who lost their race due to their unwise “investment” in the Spaceport.
This is where the Spaceport goes from isolated mistake to cautionary tale. The Spaceport has proven to be a spectacular failure in large part because the people behind it didn’t have any “skin” in the game. This lack of consequences leaves politicians to make decisions based on all manner of personal and political desires.
That is not to say that private sector entrepreneurs don’t fail. Indeed, if you know anything about Steve Jobs, he failed time and again as do most entrepreneurs. But they have their own money at stake and thus have the incentive to make better bets and only make bets they expect to succeed.
Just as governments should not kill businesses through high taxes and onerous regulations, government should not attempt to place bets using tax dollars on favored industries or technologies.
The Spaceport is only the most vivid failure of such government overreach in New Mexico, but we see the Rail Runner piling up ongoing losses and massive “balloon payments” due in the not-too-distant future.
The film industry which the economically-ignorant cite as a great success has actually lost $147 million for taxpayers since 2010 according to the New Mexico Legislature’s own study.
In recent years, taxpayers have also lost $16 million in subsidies for Schott Solar and $19 million Eclipse Aviation.
These wasted tax dollars could have been returned to real New Mexico entrepreneurs in the form of tax cuts to produce jobs and a real economic stimulus to our state. Instead, those scarce dollars have been – and in the cases of the Rail Runner and film subsidies – continue to reduce our prosperity by taking money out of entrepreneurs’ pockets and allocating it to less productive uses.
The good news is that Gov. Martinez doesn’t seem inclined to grandiose spending on spaceports and trains. Hopefully, New Mexicans have learned an important lesson about the promises of politicians and, rather than government micromanagement of our economy – a tendency that has led us to our impoverished state – will support government as referee, not coach.
Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.