State panel again delays vote on racino license

New Mexico Racing Commission Chairman Ray Willis, center, addresses those gathered Friday for a special meeting in Albuquerque. Following a closed-door session, the commission decided for a third time to put off a vote on issuing the state’s sixth and final license for a new racetrack and casino operation. Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico horse-racing regulators on Friday reluctantly decided for a third time to put off a vote on issuing the state’s sixth and final license for a new racetrack and casino operation.

Racing Commission Chairman Ray Willis said the state Attorney General’s Office warned that if the commission moved ahead with issuing the license, the office would not be obligated to defend the commissioners if a legal fight ensued. His announcement came after the commission met behind closed doors for nearly two hours.

At issue is a petition filed in District Court by one of the companies vying for the lucrative license. The company is seeking a temporary injunction, saying the commission hasn’t done enough to study the issue.

There had been some pressure for the commission to make a decision before the end of the year because the makeup of the five-member panel could change in 2019 with a new governor in place.

The commission staff plans to work with Democrat Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office to draft a letter to Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham, also a Democrat. The intention, Willis said, is to allow the Republican-appointed commission to continue with the process after the governor’s office changes hands Jan. 1.

Willis said most members of the commission are in favor of issuing the license.

“I know how this commission feels,” he told the Associated Press after the meeting. “The horsemen are for it. The breeders are for it. And we feel that it is needed.”

Commissioner Gayla McCulloch of Farmington said at a meeting earlier this month that she was among those opposed to issuing the license. There is an existing track and casino located in her community.

The state’s 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 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.