Border lawmaker makes another push to put eight-liners on local ballots

Texas Tribune News

Eight-liner machines resemble slot machines such as this one in Las Vegas.
Eight-liner machines resemble slot machines such as this one in Las Vegas.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

LAREDO — As another scandal tied to illegal gambling hits this border town, a state lawmaker is again pushing legislation that would let voters decide if popular eight-liner gaming rooms should remain legal in Texas.

But after watching similar bills die in years past, the mayor and district attorney aren’t hopeful that the proposal will pass the Legislature and worry that the lure of easy money — and the problems associated with that temptation — will remain a law enforcement problem in the Gateway City.

Eight-liners are digital slot machines that offer a variety of games; they are legal as long as players don’t walk away with prizes worth more than the state’s $5 per-game limit. But it’s an open secret that game room operators frequently pay out well more than the state limit.

If passed, House Bill 78 by state Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, would shutter eight-liner rooms throughout the state. A city or county government would then have the option of letting voters decide whether to reopen the game rooms through a ballot initiative. If they did, Raymond’s bill would increase the state payout limit from $5 per game to $1,500 per game — which Raymond hopes would largely end prosecutions for exceeding the limit.

“I think it would be a better system than what we have right now,” said Raymond, who has filed similar legislation every legislative session since 2009. “It’s lawlessness right now, and everybody knows it.”

Webb County District Attorney Isidro Alaniz said the operations are a breeding ground for other types of crimes, like money laundering and public corruption.

“A lot of this money is being wired out of the country; this is large scale. You’re talking some of these establishments making, on the low end, $7,000 a day to $15,000 a day in cash,” he said.

That money has led to at least two police corruption cases in Laredo.

In 2008, Laredo’s former police chief and two high-ranking officers were convicted on federal conspiracy charges after they pleaded guilty to taking cash and other goods from some game rooms in exchange for not disclosing that the operators were exceeding the state payout limit. Afterward, the city cracked down on the game rooms, and several of them closed.

Last month, veteran Laredo police officer Anthony Carrillo Jr. was charged with abuse of official capacity and other crimes after he allegedly took cash from a game room during a raid. Carrillo has quit the department and pleaded not guilty.

“We believe it’s a pretty straightforward case of one cop making the decision to take money from a crime scene,” said Alaniz, whose office was one of several agencies that took part in the investigation of the game room.

Even after raids, Alaniz said, game rooms often reopen, sometimes using employees with no criminal history to apply for the permits.

“You have straw people [applying for permits], very similar to straw [gun] purchases,” he said.

Laredo’s City Council recently imposed a $1,000 fee per machine, hoping it would reduce the number of game rooms. But Alaniz said the fee hasn’t deterred more game rooms from opening.

Raymond said that should his legislation become law, he believes Texas voters would opt to close the game rooms in some of the communities that have them. But because his legislation would expand potential payouts where eight-liners are permitted by voters, he knows there will be opposition from the more conservative flank of the Legislature.

Alaniz said he doesn’t think Raymond’s bill will gain much traction at the Capitol.

“As far as I’ve been the district attorney — for 11 years — I think that proposal has been on the table,” he said. “What does that tell me? It’s a fallacy that’ll never happen.”

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz isn’t convinced either.

“It’s not going to go anywhere. It’s not going to happen,” he said.

But Raymond said he’s considering another option that might have a better chance of passing the Texas House if there isn’t an appetite for his original bill: simply shutting down all the eight-liner game rooms without the option to reopen them with voter approval.

“And then if another Legislature wants to come back later and decide they want to go toward what I proposed, which is local option, then let another Legislature do it,” Raymond said. “My point being is that I think we need to start over, and I think we need to start at zero.”

His bill was left pending in the House Committee on Licensing and Procedures earlier this month. The committee’s chairman, state Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, said he’s open to considering Raymond’s bill if it’s amended. But whether it passes could be a matter of carefully wording the proposal in a way that doesn’t ban legitimate amusement games that don’t pay out money or prizes in excess of the state’s limit, he said.

“I think there would be an appetite for it if you could draft a bill that would do that,” King said. “In the past whenever folks have tried to outlaw them completely, you have trouble defining exactly what an eight-liner is. You run into trouble with Chuck E. Cheese’s and all these other people that have all of these legitimate game rooms.”