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Spaceport funding fiasco causes strife in House of Representatives



The Oklahoma House of Representatives questioned funding the state's space development authority, but ultimately passed the funding bill.

Whether it was politics or genuine concern, Oklahoma's space authority was nearly aborted by the Legislature. A bill to fund the agency which operates the Oklahoma Spaceport had to be voted on twice before gaining passage. Some members of the House of Representatives said they are still upset about the departure of the company the spaceport was intended to use.

Back in 2003, the state granted an $18 million tax credit to Rocketplane Global for the sole purpose of building a space tourism business in Oklahoma. But six years after millions were handed over, Rocketplane folded its operation and bolted from the Oklahoma soil. No ship ever launched. Since its departure, several politicians have lamented on the taxpayer-funded Rocketplane. That discourse continued last week as the state Legislature opened up its 2010 session.
The disruption came over a routine matter. At the beginning of each session, Legislative leaders push through dozens of budget appropriation shell bills. These measures provide the vehicle to fund each state agency, yet have no dollar amounts in them. As Rep. Ken Miller, R-Edmond, explained during debate, the bills are simply meant to move the budgeting process forward so that when funding figures are agreed on, the bills will be in place to fund the agencies.

"This is a shell bill so that we can get these bills over there (to the Senate) in time," Miller said. "The funding comes in the GA (General Appropriation) bill."

But for several of Miller's colleagues, this was a time to air their dismay over the whole space business operation in Oklahoma. House Bill 2430 is the appropriation bill for the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority. The small agency operates the Oklahoma Spaceport in Burns Flat, about 100 miles due west of Oklahoma City. Created out of the former Clinton-Sherman Air Force base, the spaceport was originally developed for the sole purpose of launching the Rocketplane space tourism business. The state spent millions of dollars refur-bishing the base and its two-mile-long runway.

But with the departure of Rocketplane, the spaceport has had to move on to other forms of business to stay active. And while OSIDA has brought in other ventures, such as aircraft maintenance, the big dollars expected from the development have yet to appear.

"I don't think it's a good idea to spend tax dollars on something that has been a failure now for 10 years," said Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City.

The conservative lawmaker was not alone in his criticism of OSIDA. When the bill was first brought up in the state House Feb. 3, a bipartisan group of Republicans and Democrats defeated it, 51-45. Most of the Republicans voted "no" because they don't want the agency funded. The Democrats tended to vote negative as a protest against the behind-the-scene budget negotiations.

This sent the House leadership into panic mode, causing a second vote to take place a day later. The move worked, and the bill passed 68-27, with several Republicans switching their vote. But the debate over the bill brought out some of the inner feelings House members feel about each other, the process and the agency.

"There might be times when going through the situation we are going through together this session, might make one lose their patience. Friends, I'm there," Miller said.

"Passing or not passing," he continued, "this bill will not dissolve OSIDA, it will just throw a kink in the process. If you want to dissolve OSIDA, run a bill to take it out of statute. I hope my friends in this chamber will give me some latitude this session because I'm not going to be as charming as I usually think I am."

Newly elected member Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, whose district includes Burns Flat, emphatically proclaimed that OSIDA never received any state tax credits and should not be held responsible for Rocketplane's failures. But Reynolds was not persuaded by Russ' argument.

"I'm not saying OSIDA got the money," Reynolds said. "I'm saying if OSIDA wasn't there; we wouldn't have given the $18 million we shouldn't have given away in the first place."

OSIDA received about $500,000 this fiscal year from the Legislature and is expected to take a cut for next fiscal year. Russ said things are improving at the spaceport and the potential for job opportunity is still great. Rep. Guy Liebman, R-Oklahoma City, even advised some of the members of the potential job opportunities.

"There is a golf course out there that when one of you term out you could operate," he said. The Oklahoma Spaceport offers an on-site golf course. "Scott Cooper | Photo by Mark Hancock

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