11/22/2002 1:00AM

New Mexico panel in flux

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The New Mexico Racing Commission is in a state of limbo after Gov. Gary Johnson this week fired two racing commissioners and another resigned over questions about the licensing of a new racetrack.

Commission chairman Greg Drake and commissioner Russ Moore were fired on Monday by Johnson on a recommendation from his chief of staff, David McCumber. After the two were ousted, commissioner Michael Harbour resigned, leaving the commission with only two members and without a quorum.

Julian Luna, the executive director of the commission, said on Friday that regulators do not plan to meet until three new commissioners are appointed. Luna said he expects the spots to be filled sometime early next year, after governor-elect Bill Richardson takes office.

In a letter sent to Johnson on Monday, McCumber questioned whether licensing a new track would create legal problems for the state's compacts with Native American casinos. McCumber also said that New Mexico did not need a new racetrack, and criticized any consideration of a track run by R.D. Hubbard, who resigned from his gaming company this year after his license was rescinded in Indiana.

The commission had expected to act on Hubbard's proposal for a new track in Hobbs, N.M., at a Tuesday meeting. That meeting was canceled.

"The commission's adamancy to hear this matter despite the concerns outlined in this letter raises real questions as to whether it is acting in the best interest of the state of New Mexico," McCumber wrote.

Hubbard's license was rescinded in Indiana after his company, Pinnacle Entertainment, agreed to pay fines for providing prostitutes to business executives on a golf and gambling junket at the company's Belterra Casino. Hubbard was personally fined $740,000 by the Indiana Gaming Commission for his role in the junket.

Hubbard is also the chairman of Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. Citing the Indiana fines, the New Mexico Gaming Control Board recently recommended that Hubbard's license for Ruidoso not be renewed.

Two other applications have been filed for a track in Hobbs, one led by Shawn Scott, a Nevada businessman and the owner of Vernon Downs in New York, and another headed by Ken Newton, the former owner of The Downs at Santa Fe, which is closed.

Interest in opening horse racing tracks has picked up significantly since the New Mexico legislature legalized slot machines at racetracks three years ago.