LAREDO — The lights coming from the digital slot machines danced on rows of empty chairs on a recent night in a South Texas gaming hall that was only partially filled.
But employees were content with what business they had.
“Are you a member?” an employee asked a reporter in Spanish. “You have to be a member, and only the owner can approve you. He’s not here.”
The lukewarm reception for strangers is common in these gaming halls, which are legally allowed to operate, provided that players do not walk away with prizes — either cash or goods — worth more than the state’s limit of $5 a game.
It is an open secret, however, that the payoffs can be much higher, luring residents here to spend what critics say is money that is hard to come by in a county with a 30 percent poverty level. After a crackdown in Laredo a few years ago on these gaming halls, also called eight-liners or maquinitas (Spanish for little machines), such gaming rooms are again common, and officials are of mixed opinion on whether to enforce or adjust the law.
“I don’t get many complaints here about maquinitas; I get complaints about burglaries and stolen vehicles,” said Carlos Villarreal, Laredo’s city manager. “So it’s a law that was destined to fail since its inception.”
Even at church or city events, Villarreal added, Laredoans tell him in Spanish, “Mr. Villarreal, those places are my Las Vegas.”
The Webb County district attorney’s office declined to comment on the eight-liners.
In 2008, Laredo’s former police chief and two high-ranking officers were convicted on federal conspiracy charges. They pleaded guilty after taking cash and other goods for not disclosing that some gaming halls were exceeding the state limit on payouts. After that, city officials and the police cracked down on the halls, and several were closed.
But the gaming halls are again common — some tucked away in strip malls and others plainly visible from highways and busy streets. And city leaders like Villarreal appear less fazed this time around. They say that in this town there are bigger problems than senior citizens chain smoking and drinking sodas as they spend their money in hopes of a bigger payday.
Officials add that when the law is enforced, the penalty levied on owners hardly warrants the resources used to make a bust. If convicted of illegally operating a gambling place, owners face a maximum penalty of a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and no more than a $4,000 fine. Because owners or operators are selective about who enters their establishments, officers have to work undercover, often multiple times, to establish a relationship and get proof of illegal activity.
State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D- Laredo, said residents and local governments would benefit if the law were adjusted. He is renewing his proposal for a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to determine whether eight-liners should be legalized or prohibited in certain areas.
Raymond said his proposal would be modeled on alcohol sales laws in the state. In Texas, some establishments can serve alcohol in counties that have been designated “wet.” Within counties, some precincts are designated “wet” or “dry.”
“You wouldn’t have it in all 254 counties; you’d have it in some,” Raymond said of gaming halls.
Under his proposal, a portion of the proceeds from those halls would go to local governments, he added. The state would get the remainder, and Raymond said he envisioned the funds going toward law enforcement.
Though the measure has failed in the past, he said there could be a potential window next session, depending on the outcome of this year’s elections.
“Every session is a different animal,” he said.