Lottery crew blindsided by bill for more gambling

Captains of industry often influence how the chorizo is made at New Mexico’s Capitol. They have outdone themselves this time.

I speak of House Bill 101, which ranks as one of the stranger proposals in the long, twisted history of legislating.

The bill would give the New Mexico Lottery responsibility over sports betting and table gambling at casinos connected to horse-racing tracks.

And what does the lottery staff know about this proposal that would add an expansive assignment to its core business?

“The lottery had nothing to do with the bill,” said David Barden, who is none other than CEO of the lottery.

Passive observer though he is, Barden offered his assessment of the 53-page bill.

“It’s putting us in charge of regulating an industry that’s not there right now,” he said.

Because legislators didn’t consult with the lottery staff, you might wonder how this convoluted bill took shape.

It’s simple enough. Casino operators told legislators they need help financially, and broadening gambling is their solution.

Casinos aligned with horse tracks can now offer only slot machines. They would like to have poker and blackjack tables, sports betting and other lures that are available at tribal casinos.

Furthermore, the tracks hope to make the bill palatable to lawmakers and the public by tying it to the state lottery, which has but one mission.

Under New Mexico law, the lottery exists to raise money for college scholarships.

The bill linking the lottery to a new gambling industry projects another $40 million in annual state revenues. Of that, $10 million a year would go to the scholarship fund.

As for the casinos, they hope to gain by increasing customer traffic and the amount of money spent on gambling, food and drinks, said Sen. Steve Neville, R-Farmington. He is one of five sponsors of the bill.

Neville told me he was asked to carry it by his hometown racetrack, SunRay Park & Casino.

“We’ve got tracks that are suffering and are not going to be around if we don’t do something,” Neville said.

Creating an association between the lottery scholarship and the tracks is a strategic move by politicians to help the bill gain traction.

“They can’t get the support themselves,” Neville said of the tracks. “They wanted to open up gaming in general, and the bill evolved out of that.”

He and other proponents of the bill hope connecting the lottery scholarship to this initiative will be a selling point.

The scholarship’s value has diminished as colleges and universities have raised tuition. It once covered the full cost. Neville said the scholarship now is good for about 60 percent of that expense. State agencies have similar estimates.

Four state representatives — two Democrats and two Republicans — are sponsoring the bill with Neville. Deep in their proposal are the financial estimates of what more gambling would mean to the state.

Neville said he is open to putting more money into the scholarship program than the $10 million a year mentioned in the proposal.

Rep. Willie Madrid, D-Chaparral, is another of the bill’s other sponsors.

He said he had not studied the measure in detail, but he likes the concept of more kids getting a college education without the crushing debt of student loans.

But the bill, crafted more by lobbyists and casino honchos than by lawmakers, might already have received a death sentence.

It would have to clear three committees in the House of Representatives to receive a vote from the full 70-member chamber. Then it would still have to be heard in the Senate.

Rarely does a bill with that many hurdles survive. This year will be more difficult than usual. The pace of the 60-day session has slowed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

To overcome the odds, the bill’s authors try to make a case that putting the lottery staff in a supervisory role over more gambling would brighten the economy.

“The operation of sports wagering and table games on the premises of racetrack licensees would serve to protect, preserve, promote and enhance the tourism industry of the state as well as the general fiscal well-being of the state and its political subdivisions,” the bill states.

That’s a mouthful. It might have been more persuasive if the people who would be responsible for overseeing all this prosperity had been told about it.

Then again, maybe Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck was right when he said, “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.”

Latest posts