McLennan County commissioners are considering whether to throw support behind a proposed state law that would let voters decide on the local level whether to outlaw or regulate eight-liner gaming machines.
With gambling prohibited statewide, the machines that mimic slots already operate in a gray area. They are allowed as long as they pay out a maximum of $5 in the form of a prize or ticket, never cash. While the city of Waco already has an ordinance limiting the number of machines one business can operate, among other provisions, moves by the state Legislature could bring uniformity countywide, even if voters do not outlaw eight-liners outright.
“We will try to accumulate all the information that the commissioners want to look at and put it on the tentative, my prediction is, for the Jan. 15th agenda,” County Judge Scott Felton said. “It would be a resolution supporting the legislation and a resolution would support the gambling laws in our community. … It doesn’t make sense for just Waco to be an island.
That kind of legislation really needs to be countywide so we can have all the agencies in all the cities in the county working together to try to achieve its goal.”
Introduced by Rep. Richard Raymond, House Joint Resolution 12 and House Bill 78 together would place the decision on eight-liner regulation or prohibition in voters’ hands on the local level. Similar proposals have fallen short in the past five legislative sessions.
“This year and honestly for the last several years we have gotten calls and complaints from people about eight-liner operations and the establishments that have these machines,” said Ashley Nystrom, who handles legislative issues for the city of Waco.
In recent years, Waco police have raided a handful of eight-liner operations, alleging proprietors were handing out cash prizes, making them illegal. In those cases, other illegal activity is often associated with the businesses, Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said.
“We know that the illegal gambling establishments that we’ve had have presented problems with drug dealing and other criminal activities that go one there,” Swanton said. “It is a big problem and it is not just about gambling. If they were legal in Texas, we wouldn’t have a problem with it, but it is and it breeds more criminal activity than just illegal gambling.”
Short of prohibiting eight-liners for all purposes, countywide regulations could limit the number of machines in a business, limit the number of game rooms in certain areas or prohibit game rooms within a certain distance of homes, schools, or places of worship.
Lacy Lakeview Police Chief John Truehitt said officers investigated several small businesses and closed several illegal gambling operations about four years ago. Though police had success at the time, eight-liners, and associated illegal activities, are resurfacing there, Truehitt said.
“It is an ongoing problem and the problem is that the law allows machines to be in businesses if they are in there for entertainment. Where they become illegal is when they pay out money,” Truehitt said. “The difficulty comes in, especially for small businesses, they usually know their patrons, so it is difficult to have an undercover officer get in there and witness these alleged crimes.”