Advocate Editorial Board opinion: Legislature needs to fix game room law
By the Advocate Editorial Board
June 7, 2014 at 1:07 a.m.
Everyone wants to feel like a winner. It's an enjoyable sensation that can be achieved many ways. Some get that feeling through hard work and accomplishing their goals. Others prefer the thrill of winning games and gambling.
That thrill might be one of the reasons game rooms featuring eight-liners are popular in Victoria. In the past five years, the number of game rooms has jumped from 11 to 20. The game rooms themselves are legal; it's the prizes some of them pay that cross the line. Texas lawmakers created a law in 1993, often called the "fuzzy animal law," which says game room prizes may not have a value of more than $5. That means winners can earn small prizes such as canned food items, bottles of soda, boxes of cereal, toilet paper and more. But some rooms turn a profit by working outside the law and offering cash payouts to winners.
This problem is not new or unique to Victoria. Law enforcement across the state has worked to shut down game rooms that award prizes that are too large or pay out in cash. Unfortunately, in this case, their efforts are hampered by the very law they are trying to enforce. Breaking the "fuzzy animal law" is only a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail and no more than a $4,000 fine. Prosecutors can try to attach other charges, such as organized crime or money laundering, but as we saw in a recent case involving the Victoria Internet Cafe game room, there's no guarantee any extra charges will stick.
The illegal nature of businesses offering cash payouts makes game rooms targets for robberies. In Victoria, two men were arrested May 18 on suspicion of robbing a game room in the 3100 block of East Red River Street. In September, two employees of Lady Luck gaming room were robbed of $22,000 in the parking lot. Not all game rooms operate illegally, but the knowledge that some do serves as an enticement for robbers.
The growth in game rooms also cuts into the money provided to Victoria nonprofit organizations. Under different state regulations, nonprofits receive a percentage of the annual revenue generated by Palace Bingo. When illegal gambling booms, bingo revenue typically suffers, the Palace Bingo owner reports.
The process of investigating and prosecuting game rooms can costs thousands of dollars in officers' time and result in relatively small penalties for the offenders. If state lawmakers want to address the problem of illegal payouts, they have two options:
• One, they can give more teeth to the law and create harsher penalties that will serve as more effective deterrents. Upping charges for violations to a felony would send a clear message that illegal payouts will not be tolerated and that the state intends to take this issue seriously.
• The second option would be for the state to look into legalizing casino gambling. All of the states bordering Texas allow it, and many major casinos are built near our state border. Casinos even send buses into Texas to help transport people to these out-of-state casinos. Texas is losing millions in potential revenue and economic investment to other states and illegal gambling. By sanctioning it and creating clear regulations, the state can address the issue and allow these businesses to legally operate in a safer, more profitable way.
Either of these options will help reduce the illegal activity in game rooms across the state. The state Legislature needs to finally clear up the mess it created in 1993 or keep pretending the situation will fix itself. The latter is a bad gamble for Texas.
This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.