Sunday, March 19, 2017

Spaceport Secrecy Act SB 429

The failing Spaceport got a local state senator to introduce Senate Bill 429, the Spaceport Confidential Records Act, which would cloak the Spaceport in secrecy, supposedly to attract customers.

New Mexico law already protects companies' trade secrets. This bill would protect the Spaceport's own “secrets” from its owners – you and me. The second excuse for it is to protect “cyberinfrastructure information” from potential terrorists. (Would some terrorist bomb the spaceport just to kill a few rabbits?) If this bill has any legitimate objective, it's unfortunate that someone drafted it using a meat-cleaver, rather than exercising actual thought. 

Knowing how essential governmental transparency is to our democracy, I worry about bills like this; and knowing that many citizens feel the Spaceport is an irredeemable failure, I wonder about management's motives.

The bill would bury any and all information about anyone or anything who/that provides revenue to the Spaceport.

Sorry, but I'm with the folks who feel we've bent over more than far enough for the Spaceport. 

If you're doing business with the Spaceport, you're doing business with me – and Tamie, Larry, and Bev. We have a right to know who and what you are. Maybe we don't WANT to do business with you because of your corporate conduct. Maybe we'd like to know whether the Spaceport managers, whose optimistic predictions haven't yet come close to panning out, gave you an unjustifiable sweetheart deal. Maybe we want to know if your brother-in-law is on the Spaceport Board.

We have a right to that information. Morally. Ethically. And legally, so far. I oppose this effort to obliterate that right. The context magnifies my objection. We're being asked for yet another sacrifice to the Almighty Spaceport, when many of us are not yet believers. The less say we have, and the less information we get, the more our financial contribution feels like taxation without representation. 

A host of other public entities are waiting in the wings to keep information from you and me. They'd like to keep salary information or public complaints or some pet pile of information confidential, mostly to protect their hind-parts. But certain obligations accompany the paycheck and other benefits public employees get. Transparency matters – even when it's inconvenient. Meaningful democracy requires public access to public documents.

“Cyberinfrastructure?” If there's a hole in the IPRA that would let me get information that should be secure, such as the password for detention center computers, by all means let's address it. (This bill makes no such broader effort.)

In September, management presented a rosy picture to a legislative oversight committee, without the requested secrecy. (The minutes show that a legislator stated that fencing 160 acres of Spaceport America land cost taxpayers $2 million when it should have cost only $28,000.)
On March 11, the Senate Public Affairs Committee voted 6-1 to report the bill without a recommendation. The Judiciary Committee has it now, as I write.

In a weird way, the bill reminds me of Trump's ban on immigrants and visitors from certain countries: courts that follow the law and overturn it will be “responsible” for most any future terrrorist act committed by an immigrant or visitor. With management claiming this nutty Spaceport Confidentiality Act is necessary to bring in revenue (which the Spaceport has spectacularly failed to do), opponents will now be “responsible” if the Spaceport continues to be a loser.

If proponents of this bill were representing their constituents, they'd be asking serious questions about whether or not we should pull the plug on Spaceport America. I don't know the answer, but that sure seems a more urgent question.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News, this morning, Sunday, 19 March, as well as on the newspaper's website and on KRWG-TV's website, and elsewhere.  I submitted it several days ago.  The legislative session then ended, with SB429 still in committee.]

[The Legislative Finance Committee analysis concedes that “there are protections for trade secrets under New Mexico law,” but suggests that “specific protections for potential clients of Spaceport America may help increase customer solicitation.” To me, that's an admission that this thing ain't necessary. It "may help"; but customers' trade secrets are already protected, as noted in the column.]

[I always have to qualify anything I write about the Spaceport: technology can rapidly turn us in an unexpected direction, and many things given short shrift for a long time end up huge.  Edison thought that what he'd developed that led to the moving pictures was amusing, but too insignificant to bother patenting.  Serious scientists swore they'd never see man fly only a year or so before Kitty Hawk.  So maybe everything I write now will seem awfully foolish in a year or two or five or twenty.  
But as time passes, that feels increasingly like a teenager musing,  "But who knows, MAYBE there is a Santa Claus . . ."]

Maybe the wire is the $2 million fence.  

[I haven't independently verified the state senator's allegation that the cost should have been $28,000.  A sharp-eyed friend happened to notice it in the minutes.]

[Below, I've included additional material, including part of a news story and some quotes from email threads among local citizens:]
According to news reports, new Spaceport America Executive Director Dan Hicks argued that such strict confidentiality is expected in the hyper-competitive commercial space industry.  Laura Villegran, Albuquerque Journal Las Cruces Bureau Chief, reported Hicks as saying,
“Having spent 34 years in the Department of Defense, I thought secrecy was big there.  It is nothing compared to the commercial space industry.”   He reportedly argued that SB 429 could make the spaceport more competitive with new spaceports nationwide. An underling reportedly noted that business secrets are closely guarded by start-ups still in the R&D or testing phase; but it's highly unclear that those companies would be disclosing truly proprietary information to the Spaceport anyway.
Again per Ms. Villegran, Gregory Williams, president of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government President Gregory Williams, called the bill “ a concern,” adding "In a purely private business situation, businesses can often keep information private,” he said. “But this is not purely private; this involves a lot of New Mexico taxpayer money. Anyone who wants to take our state’s money needs to be accountable.”

Williams said Spaceport needs to “convince us that the overall benefit to the public is better if we have more confidentiality.”
“But just because they are claiming they are at a business disadvantage doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the case,” he said. “They are going to have to come forward with more information to demonstrate that confidentiality has a significant impact on their business.”
[The following are quotes from communications by local citizens against SB 429:

"The argument that companies need secrecy in their arrangements with the state is a bogus one.  The only information which requires and is entitled to secrecy is proprietary data already defined and protected by law.  Although some arrangements include proprietary information, this narrowly defined information can be redacted without the need to hide the terms of arrangements as wholes.

"It is hard to imagine that secrecy rather than transparency promotes higher confidence in government or better decisions in the state interest.  It increases opportunities for mistakes and corruption.  And it flies in the face of efforts to address issues of unethical conduct."
                                                         - Michael Hays (to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee)

"Is this a joke? This bill 'protects information pertaining to spaceport authority security and cyberinfrastructure that could be used to facilitate the planning or execution of a terrorist attack.' Oh yeah there will be a terrorist attack on Spaceport America. Protection of the national infrastructure is a high priority for cybersecurity in this country. Critical infrastructure such as the national power grid, commercial financial networks, and communications networks have been successfully invaded and re-invaded from foreign and domestic attackers. However, where is cyberinfrastructure at Spaceport America. Is it protecting  the wealthy and this joyride? This is not the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range. Please someone explain the  cyberinfrastructure at Spaceport America."
                                                 - Greg Lennes (to me and others)

"With an inactive spaceport - a "boondoggle-in-the-desert", why is this legislation necessary? The Inspection of Public Records Act makes it clear that lawyers, journalists and all other members of the public are entitled to the greatest amount of information possible about the work of their government. The Judiciary Committee should vote this SECRECY bill down. Ensuring confidentiality for the private businesses that want to use the spaceport will help, Spaceport America argued. This is a mighty poor and weak argument when the taxpayers are paying for this white elephant. There will be no public scrutiny. It is an insult to New Mexicans. VOTE NO!"
                                                   - Greg Lennes (to NM Sen. Joseph Cervantes and others)

"One of the many scandals in New Mexico's political scene is that a progressive electorate tolerates a Democratic Party apparatchik that is economically and fiscally conservative.  They stay in power by their never-ending promises to bribe businesses to relocate here (bringing good paying jobs) rather than doing the heavy lifting of making it economically attractive to to move here by building a first rate educational system, building and maintaining a modern infrastructure and creating a simplified and fair tax code."
                                            - Larry Gioannini (by email)

"As a past state government manager in a state (OR) with strong sunshine laws, I learned how important it was to the CITIZENS that they believed their government was above board. Anything less made all my (and your) job harder if not impossible. The level of distrust for government is not only unwieldy, it is actually dangerous for government employees. There is no reason to obfuscate the dealings of the spaceport for which we taxpayers are getting soaked except to cover up operational fiascos, waste, or incompetence.   Leave our sunshine laws alone and certainly don't make exceptions for a single company."
                                           - Connie Potter (to members of the NM Senate Judiciary Committee)

"SB 429, for whatever merit it may have, can only be seen as a dangerous and completely unreasonable and unneeded proposal to hide information which should be completely in the public knowledge.
"I am absolutely opposed to the State ownership of the Spaceport, but I would oppose this bill even if I favored the Spaceport.
"There is every reason to protect the valid commercial or proprietary details of systems being tested or operated at the Spaceport, and certain test results.  That is common and established practice.  But this bill takes secrecy to greater extents, without necessity, tradition, or apparent need.
"I urge you to . . . "Vote NO on [this bill] at every opportunity, and encourage your fellow legislators to do the same; and make public who generated this bill, and why - what were their real aims and objectives."
                                          - Bob Hearn [to members of the NM Senate Judiciary Committee]
"But this proposed law is and would be an abomination even if I supported the Spaceport."
                                           - Bob Hearn [by email]

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