Editor’s note: This editorial was scheduled to be published Aug. 27 but was pre-empted by Hurricane Harvey. Much has changed in the weeks since, but this point stands.

For a city professing to want to rid itself of video gaming rooms, Hitchcock did a very strange thing in late August.

City commissioners passed rules that were supposed to cap the number of video gaming rooms in the mainland city. That sounded pretty reasonable, until you do the math.

The commission voted to cap the number of video gaming rooms — those businesses that profit from devices that operate similarly to slot machines — to 14. But Hitchcock at the time was home to about 10 game rooms operating in city limits.

“We were hoping to get to eight through attrition, but we decided to change it, and put the ordinance limit to 14,” Mayor Anthony Matranga said.

The decision came after the commission in August 2016 passed a two-year moratorium on granting video gaming room licenses. That ordinance was meant to limit the number gaming room licenses. But the effort led to a lot of empty buildings, Matranga said.

It’s understandable that Hitchcock, or any other city for that matter, would want to prevent empty buildings. But what Hitchcock commissioners actually did was extend a very public invitation to game room operators. And that’s strange, because game rooms aren’t your average industry, certainly not the kind elected officials, chambers of commerce and economic development boards should lure or embrace.

Gambling is illegal in Texas. But state lawmakers have confused the matter by making electronic or electromechanical gaming devices legal, as long as they are intended for “genuine amusement” and only pay out noncash prizes that are valued at no more than 10 times the cost of one play of the game or $5, whichever is less.

This exception to the law has led to the rise of a serious underground gambling problem spreading across the state of Texas. That’s because game room operators can exploit the system, as some legal authorities have argued, by allowing patrons to receive payouts in the form of toy prizes and then allowing those patrons to exchange those prizes for cash.

And sure, we’re willing to concede that maybe some of these game rooms operate within legal confines and that people sit all day in the dark playing slots, hoping for the big payoff of fuzzy dice or a rabbit’s foot. But most game rooms, as law enforcement officials will attest, are low-rent casinos with a lot of cash on-site serving as hubs for other criminal activity, including armed robbery.

It’s confounding that elected officials have dragged their feet and treated these game rooms as if they’re a legitimate industry, and not the criminal networks that they are. And it isn’t just Hitchcock.

County commissioners have for years had the means to curb illegal gaming rooms, but lack a sense of urgency, or political will, or both.

In January, the county commissioners court voted to delay implementing new rules governing game rooms. The delay was wise at the time. Some commissioners had worried the court had moved too quickly between unveiling and adopting the policy, and had not consulted other key players.

Ryan Dennard, whose term on the commission ended Jan. 1, unveiled the 10,291 words of regulation Dec. 7, and the court voted Dec. 13 — four working days later. We argued at the time that the urgency with which the court acted in December was just odd given the fact it dragged its feet on the regulations for 18 months.

But everything about the serious problem of gaming rooms and the response to it by elected officials has been odd, including Hitchcock’s vote.

• Laura Elder

 Laura Elder: 409-683-5248; laura.elder@galvnews.com

(7) comments

David Smith

Not odd at all.. follow the money

Carlos Ponce

Roberto Torres writes, "After the end of the Civil War, Lee rejected the display of Confederate flags and monuments, and wrote 'I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war....' "
Was Robert E. Lee referring to "the display of Confederate flags and monuments"?
"Lexington, VA., August 5, 1869.
Dear Sir--Absence from Lexington has prevented my receiving until to-day your letter of the 26th ult., inclosing an invitation from the Gettysburg Battle-field Memorial Association, to attend a meeting of the officers engaged in that battle at Gettysburg, for the purpose of marking upon the ground by enduring memorials of granite the positions and movements of the armies on the field. My engagements will not permit me to be present. I believe if there, I could not add anything material to the information existing on the subject. I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered. Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee. "
Was the 1869 memorial a "display of Confederate flags and monuments"? No.
"Soldiers’ National Cemetery was the first to receive a monument in 1869. A white memorial urn honors the 1st Minnesota Infantry, which suffered extreme losses during the fighting on July 2, 1863."
http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMHFCT_1st_Minnesota_Infantry_Memorial_Gettysburg_PA
1st Minnesota Infantry was NOT Confederate. No Confederate Flag, no Confederate monument as Roberto Torres purports. Do you see anything of the sort on this urn?
http://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/union-monuments/minnesota/1st-minnesota/

Carlos Ponce

Sorry, wrong forum. This has been attached to the proper one though. Too many open windows. Mea Culpa.

Doyle Beard

You said gambling is illegal in Texas. Only some forms but not all gambling is illegal in Texas. Depends what it is.

Jose' Boix

Make it easy; don't allow any! Shut them all until gambling is made legal in Texas - whenever and if ever that happens!

Jim Forsythe

"Gambling is illegal in Texas"? If one wants to Gamble in Texas, they can.
If anyone thinks that gambling is not in Texas, they are kidding themselves.
Here are a few examples, This does not include all the underground gambling going on. 

Texas, , boast the largest land-based casinos in the United States
Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino
794 Lucky Eagle Drive, Eagle Pass, Texas 78852
Naskila Entertainment is a Native American Casino in Livingston, Texas
This 15,000 sq. ft. gaming facility propose over 350 electronic gaming machines.
 The Aransas Queen Casino  is a cruise ship sailing from Aransas, Texas.
It offers 180 slots working with the TITO system and table games including Blackjack, Craps, Roulette, Baccarat, Chuck a luck and an exclusive poker game: 

The Post Oak Poker Club is a legal, casino-style establishment that just opened in Houston
the Greater Houston Poker Club!

Bingo, scratch offs, LOTO, Dog racing, Horse racing,

Mark Aaron

Jacks or Better Casino Ship at the Galveston Yacht Basin.

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