Pe­ti­tion de­lays de­ci­sion on ra­cino

Lu­cra­tive li­cense might not be awarded be­fore Mar­tinez leaves of­fice

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Thom Cole [email protected]­i­can.com

AL­BU­QUERQUE — The New Mex­ico Rac­ing Com­mis­sion on Thurs­day post­poned a de­ci­sion on is­su­ing a li­cense for a new horserac­ing track, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Gov. Su­sana Mar­tinez won’t have time to hand out the lu­cra­tive li­cense be­fore she leaves of­fice at year’s end.

That would put the com­mis­sion’s de­ci­sion — which has been shaded by friend­ships, busi­ness ties and po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions — in the hands of the next gover­nor, Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham.

A top deputy to state At­tor­ney Gen­eral Hec­tor Balderas rec­om­mended the post­pone­ment be­cause of a le­gal chal­lenge filed by Hi­dalgo Downs, one of five com­pa­nies com­pet­ing to build New Mex­ico’s sixth track and slot ma­chine casino.

In a pe­ti­tion filed last week in state Dis­trict Court in Al­bu­querque, Hi­dalgo Downs and its part­ners ar­gued a fea­si­bil­ity study con­ducted for the com­mis­sion was flawed and asked a judge to or­der that a new one be pre­pared.

The study found the track and casino pro­posed by Hi­dalgo Downs for Lords­burg would pro­duce far less slot ma­chine rev­enues and state taxes than tracks and casi­nos pro­posed for Tu­cum­cari and the Clo­vis area.

The study, con­ducted by a New Or­leans group, also found that a track and casino in Lords­burg would siphon off the most gam­ing rev­enues from ex­ist­ing tracks and casi­nos.

The Rac­ing Com­mis­sion, af­ter hear­ings over sev­eral months, was sched­uled to de­cide Thurs­day whether to is­sue a new li­cense and, if so, which of the com­pet­ing com­pa­nies would get it. Three com­pa­nies want to build in the Clo­vis area and one each in Tu­cum­cari and Lords­burg.

The com­mis­sion de­ci­sion to post­pone any de­ci­sion was yet an­other sign of the enor­mous stakes in the li­cens­ing process and the pos­si­bil­ity that those who don’t get the li­cense could pur­sue le­gal chal­lenges. A new track and casino would pro­duce hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in slot ma­chine win­nings for its owner.

In con­sid­er­ing the is­sue, the Rac­ing Com­mis­sion has had to face the con­nec­tions of those com­pet­ing for the li­cense, as well as those op­pos­ing a sixth track and casino.

Com­mis­sion Chair­man Ray Wil­lis has owned race­horses with two part­ners in one com­pany seek­ing the li­cense. At least three of the other four com­mis­sion­ers also have been in­volved in rac­ing.

The state’s five ex­ist­ing tracks and casi­nos op­pose a new so-called ra­cino. They have cited an over­all de­cline in the rac­ing in­dus­try, a re­duc­tion in the num­ber of New Mex­ico-bred horses and a pro­jected drop in their casino rev­enues if new com­pe­ti­tion is al­lowed.

At least three of the com­pa­nies seek­ing the new li­cense have deep po­lit­i­cal ties to Mar­tinez, a Repub­li­can, but some com­peti­tors also have been ma­jor sup­port­ers of Lu­jan Gr­isham, a Demo­crat.

Once she takes of­fice, Lu­jan Gr­isham could move through her ap­point­ments to the Rac­ing Com­mis­sion to con­tinue the li­cens­ing process, start it over again or scut­tle it all to­gether.

Chief Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ta­nia Maes­tas, who has been ad­vis­ing the Rac­ing Com­mis­sion on the process of li­cens­ing a new ra­cino, rec­om­mended the com­mis­sion post­pone its de­ci­sion un­til the Hi­dalgo Downs lit­i­ga­tion is re­solved. Maes­tas said the post­pone­ment will en­sure a fair and im­par­tial de­ci­sion.

The Rac­ing Com­mis­sion, with­out dis­cus­sion, voted unan­i­mously to ac­cept the rec­om­men­da­tion. The vote fol­lowed a two-hour closed-door meet­ing of the com­mis­sion.

Maes­tas said the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice has un­til late De­cem­ber to file a court re­sponse to the pe­ti­tion by Hi­dalgo Downs but will do so sooner. She also said the of­fice will ask for an ex­pe­dited res­o­lu­tion of the case.

There was no court or­der in place block­ing the Rac­ing Com­mis­sion from de­cid­ing on the new track li­cense, and Maes­tas said it could have voted to is­sue the li­cense.

A spokesman for the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice said the agency “will con­tinue to work with the Rac­ing Com­mis­sion as they re­solve the threat of pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion to en­sure in­tegrity in their award­ing of the state’s sixth rac­ing li­cense.”

Dozens of peo­ple, in­clud­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the five com­pa­nies com­pet­ing for the li­cense, at­tended the com­mis­sion meet­ing.

Those who ob­jected to the com­mis­sion’s de­ci­sion de­clined to speak on the record be­cause of con­cern about how com­mis­sion­ers might view any neg­a­tive com­ments.

War­ren Frost, part of a group seek­ing to a build a track and casino in Tu­cum­cari, shrugged off the devel­op­ment.

“An­other cou­ple months isn’t go­ing to make a bit of dif­fer­ence,” Frost said.

In a state­ment is­sued through a spokesman, Full House Re­sorts of Las Ve­gas, Nev., which is seek­ing a li­cense for a track in the Clo­vis area, said it ap­plauded the Rac­ing Com­mis­sion’s “pru­dent path.”

The state’s com­pact with Amer­i­can In­dian gam­bling tribes al­lows for a max­i­mum of six race­track/casi­nos. In ex­change for lim­it­ing off-reser­va­tion gam­bling, the state gets a share of the tribes’ slot ma­chine rev­enues.

The Rac­ing Com­mis­sion first is­sued the li­cense for the sixth such op­er­a­tion in 2008 to a group that planned to build a track and casino in Ra­ton. That project col­lapsed two years later fol­low­ing re­peated con­struc­tion de­lays and per­sis­tent ques­tions about fi­nanc­ing.

The com­mis­sion, cit­ing new in­quiries, an­nounced in May that it was again ac­cept­ing ap­pli­ca­tions for the li­cense. The com­mis­sion held sev­eral hear­ings on the li­cense, in­clud­ing pre­sen­ta­tions in Lords­burg, Tu­cum­cari and Clo­vis by the com­peti­tors.

The de­ci­sion to post­pone was a sign of the enor­mous stakes in the li­cens­ing process and the pos­si­bil­ity that those who don’t get the li­cense could pur­sue le­gal chal­lenges.

GABRIELA CAM­POS/THE NEW MEX­I­CAN

New Mex­ico Rac­ing Com­mis­sion Chair­man Ray Wil­lis strikes his gavel to con­clude Thurs­day’s meet­ing. The com­mis­sion post­poned a de­ci­sion on li­cens­ing a new horserac­ing track.

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