01/02/2003 12:00AM

Joint Washington panel proposed

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SEATTLE - Gov. Gary Locke has proposed that both the Washington Horse Racing Commission and the Washington Gambling Commission be eliminated and that a new Department of Gaming be created to regulate all wagering in the state.

The proposed merger, which is contained in the governor's recently published budget proposal for 2003-04, will be presented to the Washington state legislature when the lawmakers reconvene Jan. 13. The budget proposal contains few particulars, but it calls for the restructuring to be implemented by July 1 of this year if it survives the legislative process.

The proposal is apparently motivated by a desire to cut costs for the cash-strapped state government, but it is expected to be opposed by horse racing interests.

"Our main concern is that we would get lost in the shuffle," said Ron Crockett, president of Emerald Downs. "The gaming industry is so much bigger than we are, and it would be awfully easy for our interests to be overlooked."