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BC-NM--New Mexico Racino License,1st Ld-Writethru, NM

April 4, 2019
Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A settlement has been brokered that will end a legal dispute over whether state regulators should take a harder look at the economics behind proposals for New Mexico’s sixth and final license for a horse racetrack and casino.

The state attorney general’s office confirmed late Wednesday that an agreement has been reached with the state racing commission and Hidalgo Downs LLC, one of the enterprises vying for the lucrative license.

At issue was a petition filed last year by Hidalgo Downs. The company sought a temporary injunction to halt the selection process, saying the commission hadn’t done enough to study the issue.

The legal challenge was spurred by a previous feasibility study that found a racino in the southwestern corner of the state, as proposed by Hidalgo Downs, would produce significantly less revenue and taxes than projects proposed for Clovis and Tucumcari.

The goal of the settlement was to resolve the dispute without spending any more time or money on further litigation. It calls for the commission to consider other information in the study but not the recommendations that were outlined in the report.

The commission “will take all steps it deems appropriate to fully and fairly assess all candidates” before awarding the license, the proposed agreement states.

Citing the settlement, an attorney for Hidalgo Downs filed a motion seeking to dismiss the company’s claims.

The filing comes a day before lawyers for all the parties were due in court for a hearing. Now, the settlement is expected to be the focus of Thursday’s hearing.

The commission over recent months repeatedly delayed taking a final vote on awarding the license, saying the legal dispute needed to be resolved before the regulatory panel could move forward.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who took office Jan. 1, also weighed in. The Democrat requested more information regarding the selection process. The commission obliged, saying the independent review that was done last fall and used by the panel during the ongoing deliberations would be made public.

Three groups have separate proposals for a racino in the Clovis area. There also are proposals for racinos in Tucumcari and the one in Lordsburg proposed by Hidalgo Downs.

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.”

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 also have been questions about whether some of the commissioners have conflicts of interest given their ties to the horse racing industry and whether politics has played any role.

A review of campaign finance records by the Santa Fe New Mexican showed the five racinos and their owners contributed at least $60,000 in political donations to Lujan Grisham’s campaign.

The newspaper also found that her campaign received more than $25,000 in donations from individuals and companies with ties to one of groups seeking the final license. A company linked to another group also vying for the license made a donation of more than $5,000 late in the campaign.

The governor has control over the racing commission. She could allow it to issue the lucrative license or block it from doing so by appointing new commissioners.