ALBUQUERQUE — The New Mexico Racing Commission on Thursday ratified a proposed settlement aimed at ending a legal dispute that has kept the regulatory panel from making a final decision on awarding the state’s sixth and final license for a horse racetrack and casino.
The commission voted to approve the agreement with Hidalgo Downs after meeting behind closed doors. Commissioners did not make any public statements other than to say a special meeting would be called April 30 to discuss the lucrative license.
It will be up to a state District Court judge whether to approve the settlement. Even if the judge signs off, it’s possible more legal wrangling will follow, keeping the license in limbo.
At issue is a contested feasibility study on the economics behind the five proposals under consideration. One of the enterprises vying for the license, Hidalgo Downs LLC, took its concerns to court late last year, arguing that the state hasn’t done enough to study the matter.
Hidalgo Downs negotiated the proposed settlement with the state Attorney General’s Office and the commission’s chairman ahead of a court hearing in early April that would have decided whether the other applicants could intervene in the legal case.
Attorneys for some of those applicants told the judge at the time that it appeared the settlement was negotiated in secret and it was possible open meeting laws were violated because the full commission had not voted on the proposal.
The commission contends that the chairman had authority to sign the settlement before a full vote.
The judge has yet to schedule the next hearing.
The commission over recent months repeatedly has delayed taking a final vote on awarding the license, saying the legal dispute needs to be resolved first.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who took office Jan. 1, also made a request of the commission earlier this year for more research and information regarding the selection process. The commission has yet to deliver on that request.
The applications include three proposals for a racino in the Clovis area, one in Tucumcari and Hidalgo Downs’ proposal for Lordsburg.
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.
The existing racinos have voiced concerns about adding a sixth venue, saying doing so would hurt their business. They have described New Mexico’s racing industry as far from healthy, saying additional forces could result in more downward pressure on the industry.