Sen. Gerald Dial misses budget vote to lobby for spaceport
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Mar 14, 2013 | 6466 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, didn’t cast a vote on the state’s proposed $1.75 billion General Fund budget Tuesday night — and his excuse is out of this world.

Dial walked away from a deadlocked state Senate late Tuesday evening, boarded a plane and headed for Washington to lobby for the creation of a commercial spaceport in Alabama.

“Fifty or 75 years ago you’d have never thought that I could get onto a plane in Atlanta and be in Washington in a couple of hours,” he said. “Space travel has the potential to grow just as much.”

Dial was one of only four senators who didn’t cast a vote on the General Fund budget Tuesday. The vote on the $1.75 billion spending plan, which funds all non-education state agencies, is the second biggest spending decision legislators will make in any given year. The Education Trust Fund budget, which pays for schools, is about three times as large as the General Fund.

Conflict over the budget led the Senate into extra innings Tuesday night. Democrats, upset at what they said was a lack of debate over the document, asked for the bill to be read aloud in its entirety —  a process that took more than two hours.

Lawmakers voted on the measure immediately after the reading, and the budget passed 22-9.

Senate records Wednesday morning showed Sens. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and Jerry Fielding, R-Sylacauga, voting for the budget. But one member of the Anniston area’s local delegation was missing.

“I knew we had enough votes in the procedural things we did that afternoon, so I wasn’t worried about leaving,” said Dial, a member of the Republican supermajority in the Senate.

Dial said he had already planned a trip to the nation’s capital to lobby the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to consider Alabama as a site for a commercial spaceport.

A number of commercial spaceflight startups have sprung up around the country in recent years, though none has sent paying human passengers into space yet. SpaceX, a California-based private company, sent an unmanned space capsule, launched atop a rocket, to the International Space Station last year.

Virgin Galactic, a sister company of Virgin Atlantic Airways, has plans to send passengers on brief spaceflights in a rocket-plane launched from a larger plane. Those flights are expected to take off from a commercial spaceport in New Mexico.

The FAA has licensed eight non-federal space launch sites in the U.S., according to the FAA’s website. Small-town and rural sites aren’t necessarily off the list; one of the licensed spaceports is in tiny Burns Flat, Oklahoma, on the site of an Air Force base that closed more than 40 years ago.

Dial said Alabama, home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight center, is in a good position to get a similar license.

“If we can get out ahead of this, we can lock it up,” he said.

Dial said that in the next few weeks he’ll introduce a bill that would create an Alabama Spaceport Authority, within the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. A draft of the bill states that the spaceport authority would “identify public lands for space launch” and “encourage the leveraging of venture capital and seed public-private partnerships to promote private enterprise.”

In the budget passed by the Senate Tuesday, ADECA’s $7.1 million budget was cut by $1.4 million. Dial said the Spaceport Authority would fund its work by applying for FAA grants.

If the bill passes, the new spaceport authority would supersede the nine-member Alabama Spaceport Authority the Legislature created last year. That body, created by a resolution Dial sponsored, had little power other than to study the idea of a spaceport.

Asked whether McClellan would be a good site for a spaceport, Dial declined to answer. He said identifying one district as a potential site would cause legislators in other districts to lose interest.

“If I got down to where it was going to go, I’d kill my bill,” he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
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