New Mexico Racing Commission punts again on track license

December 22, 2018

ALBUQUERQUE — The New Mexico Racing Commission on Friday voted to issue a license for a new horse-racing track — but again postponed a decision on who will get it.

After meeting behind closed doors for nearly three hours and without any public debate, the Racing Commission voted 3-1 to approve a motion saying it was committed to issuing a license for what would be the state’s sixth track.

Commission Vice Chairwoman Gayla McCulloch, who took part in the meeting via telephone, cast the negative vote.

McCulloch said she doesn’t believe the commission needs to issue another track license. She didn’t explain further and couldn’t be reached for comment after the meeting.

The commission’s vote was a blow to the state’s existing tracks and accompanying slot-machine casinos, which argue they would suffer economic harm from another so-called racino. A Racing Commission study found a sixth racino would generate new gaming revenues but also would cannibalize the income of existing tracks.

Three companies have made separate proposals to build a racino in the Clovis area. There also are proposals for racinos in Tucumcari and Lordsburg.

The Racing Commission voted Dec. 6 and again Friday to postpone issuing the new track license until a related court petition is resolved.

“We’re frustrated that we’re unable to move forward,” commission Chairman Ray Willis said.

The petition asks a state District Court judge in Albuquerque to block the commission from issuing the license until it has a second study conducted on the feasibility of a new racino.

Hidalgo Downs, the company that has proposed a racino in Lordsburg, filed the petition after a commission feasibility study found a racino in that Southwest New Mexico community would produce far less gaming revenues and taxes than the racinos proposed for Clovis and Tucumcari.

The state Attorney General’s Office has asked the judge in the case to dismiss the petition, saying it is premature since the Racing Commission hasn’t yet made a decision on who will get the license.

A hearing date on the petition hasn’t been scheduled. There is no court order in place currently that prohibits the commission from issuing the license.

The Racing Commission’s decision to again postpone issuing the license increases the likelihood that the commission won’t act before Republican Gov. Susana Martinez leaves office Dec. 31.

The new governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, could keep the commission’s five members or immediately remove or replace all or some of them, as well as the agency’s executive director.

New commissioners appointed by Lujan Grisham could continue the licensing process, restart it or shelve it indefinitely.

Some of the applicants for the new license have political ties to Martinez, but some also have links to Lujan Grisham.

The feasibility study conducted for the Racing Commission found a new track and casino could take in more than $68 million a year in gaming revenues.

The Racing Commission has had the legal authority to issue the license for more than five years but waited until last May to announce it was accepting applications.

Update hourly