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Legal wrangling delays decision on New Mexico racino license

December 21, 2018
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Left to right, New Mexico Racing Commission members Leonard Blach, Ray Willis and Jerry Cosper talk ahead of a special meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. Citing a pending legal petition, the commission opted to delay a decision on awarding the state's sixth and final license for a horse racetrack and casino. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico regulators marked another special meeting Friday without making a final decision on the state’s sixth and final license for a horse racetrack and casino, a move that could potentially push the matter into next year after a new governor takes the helm.

The Racing Commission met behind closed doors for almost three hours to discuss the matter. At issue is a petition filed in district court by one of the companies vying for the license. The company is seeking a temporary injunction, saying a feasibility study conducted for the five-member commission was flawed and another study should be done.

Chairman Ray Willis said that on the advice of the state attorney general’s office, the commission was delaying a final decision because of the pending litigation. He then voiced frustration that the regulatory panel could not move forward.

“At this time, I make a motion that this commission is committed to awarding the sixth racing license once we get the attorney general’s office approval or the judge grants or denies the petition,” Willis said.

The commission first opted in early December to postpone a decision, citing the petition. Because a hearing on that petition has yet to be scheduled, there’s no court order in place that would have prevented the commission from issuing the license.

The state’s five existing racinos have voiced concerns about adding a sixth venue, saying doing so would hurt their business. In a Nov. 13 letter to the commission, they described New Mexico’s racing industry as “far from healthy and not in need of additional forces creating additional downward pressures.”

Commissioner Gayla McCulloch of Farmington on Friday said she was among those opposed to issuing the license. There is an existing track and casino located in her community.

The makeup of the commission is likely to change as Republican Gov. Susana Martinez wraps up her second and final term at the end of December. Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham will take office Jan. 1 and is expected to make her own appointments to the Racing Commission and other panels that fall under the purview of the executive branch.

Under state compacts with casino-operating Native American tribes, only six racinos are allowed in New Mexico. The five existing establishments are in Hobbs, Ruidoso, Farmington, Albuquerque and Sunland Park.

There are three proposals for a racino in the eastern New Mexico community of Clovis, including one that would feature a moving grandstand to allow spectators to travel alongside running horses.

Tucumcari, along historic Route 66 in eastern New Mexico, is the location cited in another proposal. Hidalgo Downs, which filed the petition, wants to build its racino in Lordsburg, near the Arizona border.

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