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New Mexico casinos push for gambling expansion

Changes to gambling regulations run the risk of nullifying the state's agreements with tribes that operate casinos

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's commercial racetrack and casino venues have crafted a proposal for an expansion that would include internet gaming, 24-hour casino operations and unlimited video slot machines and table games.  

Officials with Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino in southern New Mexico testified before the Legislative Finance Committee about overhauling the industry in the state.

"I just want to stress what we're here today to talk about is an idea, a proposal," said Scott Scanland, a lobbyist for Sunland Park. "Nothing is set in stone. We want to come before this committee to try to start the conversation among all the stakeholders and talk about the possibility of expanding gaming in New Mexico."

Changes to gambling regulations run the risk of nullifying the state's agreements with tribes that operate casinos. Those compacts, which are not set to expire until 2037, call for the tribes to pay the state a portion of revenue every quarter.

Scanland said the tracks have reached out to tribes through letters and conversations about the idea of "opening gaming." Under the proposal, tribes would no longer have to make revenue sharing payments to the state and the difference would be made up by changing the tax and purse structure for tracks and allowing them to offer full Las Vegas-style gaming.

The tracks and casinos — also known as racinos — say they've been hit hard by the pandemic over the last several months, as the state's public health order has kept spectators out of the stands and the casinos have been prohibited from reopening, even at reduced capacities. The revenue from the casinos subsidizes horse racing.

Racinos and tribal casinos have seen revenues shrink in recent years, even before pandemic. A 2019 report by the legislative committee showed a 10 percemt decline from 2012-2018 in annual revenues that are shared by tribal casinos with the state, shrinking to $62.8 million.

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The legislative analysts noted at the time that the online gambling industry, which is not authorized in the state, may be drawing a share of the market away from New Mexico casinos.

Sunland Park officials told lawmakers that the gambling industry has evolved more in the last 180 days than in the last 20 years due to the pandemic and that revenues from internet gaming elsewhere is skyrocketing.

They also suggested that expanding gambling options in New Mexico would lead to more tourism and that as the industry grows crowds to include a wider demographic, restaurants and other venues could stand to benefit.

Under the racinos' proposal, many of the compromises made with gambling opponents that allowed the tracks and casinos to open in the 1990s would be eliminated. That includes allowing alcohol to be served on the casino floor, allowing ATMs and allowing casinos to establish lines of credit for individual customers.

Opponents are concerned that the proposal would remove safeguards that were put in place to prevent gambling addiction.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, a Grants Democrat who was a key player in negotiating the current tribal compacts, said it will be critical that the tribes are part of any conversations going forward and the effects on the state's budget will have to be carefully considered as the coronavirus pandemic has had significant consequences for the industry.

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