BROWNSVILLE, RGV – A lot has been written about SpaceX coming to Brownsville and how the project could transform the Rio Grande Valley and the region’s image around the world.
Not much has been written about the role state Sen. Eddie Lucio played in landing the SpaceX project. However, at a Brownsville Chamber of Commerce breakfast event on Wednesday the record was put straight by Jason Hilts, president and CEO of the Brownsville Economic Development Corporation.
In a roundtable discussion about BEDC’s agenda for the next legislative session, Hilts said that if it was not for Lucio, the Valley would never have lured SpaceX to the region. Hilts said Lucio, a member of the Senate Committee on Finance, worked with Governor Rick Perry’s Office to secure $15 million for the Spaceport Trust Fund.
“I will tell you that the Spaceport Trust Fund was the single most important program that we used to bring in SpaceX,” Hilts told the audience. “Without the leadership of our (Valley legislative) delegation, especially led by Senator Lucio. At the last minute, Senator Lucio and our local delegation stepped up and worked with the Governor’s Office to get the Spaceport Trust Funded $15 million. Of which, SpaceX was able to get $13 million.”
The Guardian reported from the state Capitol on the SpaceX project during the last legislative session. It was the only South Texas media publication to cover a visit by SpaceX founder Elon Musk to the House Committee on Appropriations. SpaceX had been relying on securing funding through various legislative committees. They had been assured the funding would be there.
But, as the session came to a close all those promises had evaporated. Daniel Esparza, a key member of Lucio’s staff, was working diligently to find ways to get funding for SpaceX. The only hope, going into the last week of the session, was for Lucio to persuade key members of the Senate Committee on Finance to add a rider to the budget bill to put some money in the Spaceport Trust Fund. There were some legislators who did not want it to happen but Lucio, working with the Governor’s Office and then-Senate Finance Committee Chair Tommy Williams, prevailed.
Asked after the Brownsville Chamber meeting how big a role Lucio played in luring SpaceX, Hilts said: “He was critical, critical. Being able to step up at the last minute, basically the last week of the session to get that through, with his leadership and his ability to reach up to the Governor and being able to get the Governor to go along with him and our local delegation coming in behind, working with the Senator, it was critical. Without that we would not have SpaceX today.”
Hilts was asked by a reporter what percentage the $13 million represented when looking at the entire incentives package used to lure SpaceX to Brownsville. Hilts said: “Right now there is between $32 million and $35 million that has been allotted to SpaceX from various sources. This has come from local sources, other communities, from state funding, from the Texas Enterprise Fund, and with help from the University of Texas at Brownsville and the University of Texas System. It all adds up to between $32 million and $35 million. So, if you look at $13 million of that, it is significant.”
During the breakfast event, Hilts explained who was supporting the Spaceport Trust Fund.
“We started working on funding for that way before the session started. We developed a partnership with Midland and Houston because they both have a spaceport authority. We worked together to try to get funding. When we first started talking about it we were talking about $5 million. But as we got through the session there was some promises made to SpaceX from some other entities of certain funding and it didn’t come through,” Hilts said.
“And so, in the last week of the session, we had a chance to see the SpaceX project go away because we were short of funding. I can say this, without the leadership of our delegation, especially led by Senator Lucio, at the last minute, he and our local delegation stepped up, worked with the Governor’s Office to get the Spaceport Trust Funded with $15 million. Of which, SpaceX was able to get $13 million.”
Hilts pointed out that the Spaceport Trust Fund was only able to get a one-time infusion of funds. Next session, supporters of the Fund are going to have to work on getting more money all over again. This time, it will not just be Brownsville, Midland and Houston. They have been joined by the greater Waco area and by Van Horn, Texas, both of whom want to develop spaceport authorities.
“We are meeting next week, the 21st, up in Austin, to start talking about the need to find a regular funding stream for the Spaceport Trust Fund so that we can fund projects related to space moving forward, instead of every session saying, ‘please give us some money.’ Hopefully, we can develop a stream of money and that will allow us to support SpaceX. It will allow us to bring in other space-related companies.”
Hilts said more funding for the Spaceport Trust Fund will help the Valley land more space-related companies.
“Since SpaceX announced, we have been contacted by other companies in the space industry. We have already signed non-disclosure agreements with them. They are looking at how they can come into the Brownsville area and they are going to be looking at how SpaceX got this and they are going to want the same kind of funding. Without the Spaceport Trust Fund it is going to put us at a disadvantage. This is a very important thing for us and the State of Texas to develop a space industry.”