When eight-liners are outlawed, cities and counties will tend to look the other way rather than try to deal with enforcing the laws against them.
Some of the money has arrived at the Duval County building in five-figure money orders or checks. But much of it has been in cash. This past April, county Treasurer Robert Elizondo took delivery of $33,700, most of it in hundreds and twenties.
“It’s very exciting to count all those twenties,” he said. “I’m going to be a bank teller after this; I’ve got the training.”
The money began pouring in soon after this sparsely populated county 90 miles west of Corpus Christi decided last summer to start charging an $800 licensing fee for each so-called eight-liner amusement machine inside its borders.
So far this year Duval County has collected just under $600,000 (about a quarter of it in cash), an amount equal to nearly 9 percent of its $7 million yearly budget.
More is expected; over Labor Day weekend, a sprawling new room with hundreds of eight-liners opened just outside the county seat of San Diego.
It could be the local government success story of the year: Confronted with a struggling economy and stagnant tax revenues, entrepreneurial officials in a county perhaps best known for its rich history of graft and political corruption uncover a lucrative new source of revenue.
But there’s a small catch.
“Of course the machines are illegal, as I understand it,” said Jo Ann Ehmann, the part-time bookkeeper for the tiny city of Gregory.
Texas’s eight-liner statutes are a mess. In their attempts to parse the differences between “amusement” and “gambling,” and determine the point at which jackpots become morally impermissible, lawmakers have rendered the statute all but unenforceable.
“The state’s definition of a gambling device is lengthier than the definition of murder,” said Shannon Edmonds, head of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “In the real world, if you want to make something clearer, you simplify it. This was drafted by people who wanted it to be vague.”
Even those willing to plunge into an anti-eight-liner campaign find the deck stacked against them. Mounting an undercover operation takes weeks or even months of dedicated police time. Prosecutions cost money that could be spent pursing more serious crime — in all, “about $50,000 of taxpayer money to shut down an establishment,” Simpson estimated.
Tiny rural jurisdictions face their own unique hurdles. For example: How to initiate a covert operation when everyone knows all your police officers?
“As soon as one of our officers walks in, he’s recognized,” admitted Robert Brake, who, as chief of the Gregory Police Department, oversees two officers. With only one typically working at a time, Brake said, he hasn’t expended a lot of effort investigating the game rooms: “We stay pretty busy with accidents and thefts and so on. I don’t have the time.”
Any parallel to the Medicaid expansion situation is of course entirely coincidental. I have as you know some conflicted feelings about gambling, and I think unregulated gambling is even more problematic, since there’s no mechanism to protect customers from getting ripped off, but it’s easy to see this from the point of view of these small jurisdictions. There’s no upside to cracking down on the eight-liners, while taxing them provides a much-needed revenue source in tough times. What else would you expect them to do? One way or another, this is a problem for the state to fix. Just don’t expect it to happen any time soon.