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Legislators propose getting rid of Racing Commission

BISMARCK -- Legislators are threatening to dissolve the state Racing Commission, saying it refuses to abide by a 2007 law meant to preserve a horsemen's premium fund.

The Administrative Rules Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to draft a bill for the 2009 session abolishing the commission and splitting its duties between the Agriculture Department and the attorney general's Gaming Division.

Committee members are also sick of the infighting between the state's horsemen, state Racing Director Randy Blaseg and commissioners, they said.

Whether the committee is only sending a message to the commission or truly will get rid of it remains to be seen, some legislators said.

"I think it's both," said Rep. Duane DeKrey, R-Pettibone.

"They've got the better part of this year to get it together or it's over," said Rep. John Nelson, R-Rugby, on Thursday. Nelson made the motion for the bill draft. The panel would still have to vote at a future meeting to send the bill to the full Legislature.

Rep. Shirley Meyer, D-Dickinson, whose bill from the last session is at the root of the controversy, said she's convinced a bill to eliminate the commission will pass the next session.

"I think it has to. This situation isn't working," she said. "I just think, where else can you go except start over with a clean slate?"

The issue Wednesday is that the 2007 Legislature ordered the Racing Commission to write a whole new set of rules and also prohibited it from using money in the breeders' fund to augment purses during races at the Fargo and Belcourt race tracks, as it has been doing for years. The new law, which took effect in July says the commission can't "transfer" funds from the breeders' fund to the purse fund.

The commissioners' lawyer has advised them that what they have been doing is not really a "transfer" and they can keep doing it, Blaseg said Thursday. Blaseg said that to prevent use of the breeders' fund to supplement purses "could really have an (adverse) impact on the racing in Fargo this year" because higher purses draw more horses to the races.

Meyer and other Administrative Rules Committee members say the Blaseg and the commission are hiding behind word games and semantics and ignoring clear legislative intent.

The Administrative Rules Committee is a panel of lawmakers that reviews administrative rules that state agencies must enact to show how they will execute laws the Legislature passes. If the committee believes an agency's rules violate the Legislature's intent, it can reject the rules.

In December, the committee told the Racing Commission to change the proposed rules to comply with the transfer prohibition. And they also turned back a new rule that requires horsemen with a filly born and registered in the state to re-register the horse when she becomes a broodmare or forfeit winnings from the breeders' fund.

Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Fischer, R-Fargo, said legislators also will demand that breeders' fund money used to augment purses since last July 1 must be restored.

Nelson believes the commission should fire Blaseg because Blaseg never informed Commission Chairman Jim Clement of Mandan that the rules committee rejected some racing rules at its December meeting and asked for a new, more acceptable version.

"The executive director didn't even tell his board chairman the rules were sent back (for more work)," Nelson said.

Meyer, too, said she was incredulous. "We've never seen anything like this, where the director doesn't even talk to the (commission) chairman."

The horsemen testifying at Wednesday's meeting are in favor of getting rid of the commission, the legislators said.

Horse breeders and owners in the state have argued for years with the Racing Commission, mostly to no avail. When Commissioner Jim Clement was named chairman last summer, he began to take steps to heal the rift, but his ideas often don't get enough votes on the commission to pass.

When Nelson asked Clement Wednesday why Blaseg has not been fired, Clement informed him that the vote would be 3-2, just as most votes on the commission are, with Clement and Clarence Fredericks of Belcourt always on the losing end.

The other three commissioners are Tom Secrest of Hettinger, Pat Weir of Fargo and DeAnn Pladson of Fargo, all of whom are attorneys.

Pladson, the most senior of the three, could not reached for comment Thursday. She did not immediately return a phone message.

a Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.