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