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On game rooms and gambling

Looks like Fort Bend County wants to follow in the footsteps of Harris County when it comes to dealing with game rooms.

Last weekend, Fort Bend County sheriff’s deputies raided the H-90 Game Room on U.S. 90A east of Richmond, hauling away 97 slot machines, interviewing and releasing about 30 customers and charging one employee with a misdemeanor.

Unlike many places that get shut down, though, the business that opened in July had not been the subject of any police calls for service.

The raid has prompted a discussion about how much of a threat game rooms actually pose to community safety.

Some Fort Bend residents had been pressing authorities to crack down on game rooms that sprouted up in the wake of Harris County’s enforcement of new rules targeting the establishments, often the scenes of shootings and other criminal activity. They didn’t want a proliferation of game rooms bringing the same problems to Fort Bend.

Sheriff Troy Nehls acknowledged that residents’ concerns prompted his department’s recent action, which involved four divisions of his office.

“We’ve received calls from the community, so we did what we could to address the issue,” the sheriff said. “This one was right off Highway 90, so it was more visible. Thus, we had more people calling concerned about the operation.”

Nehls said he takes game rooms seriously, but he played down their impact so far. He noted that he has seen no evidence of an uptick in violence, nor had there been any calls for police service at either the H-90 Game Room or another gambling parlor, on FM 359. It was open just a few months before voluntarily closing under pressure from nearby homeowners.

[…]

Other residents say authorities are wasting time cracking down on an activity they think should be legalized, even if it is only to discourage the gang activity that was often attracted to the cash-based operations in Harris County.

Larry Karson, a criminology professor at the University of Houston, said it’s the responsibility of police leaders not only to crack down on illegal activity, but to educate communities about the actual level of crime, particularly when an issue becomes a public debate.

“One generally expects any law enforcement official to recognize the concerns of the community,” Karson said. “If, based on that officer’s experience, it’s not quite as dangerous as might be assumed, he obviously needs to communicate that.”

The Texas Constitution bans most forms of gambling, but the poker-based eight-liners common to game rooms are legal to own as long as the prizes do not exceed $5 per play. Police, prosecutors and other Houston-area officials argue that most game rooms do not operate within those narrow rules, awarding larger cash sums illegally and drawing other criminal activity. To thwart enforcement of the state’s ban, officials say, many game rooms require paid memberships designed to keep out undercover officers.

Karson differentiated between the risk of crime at game rooms and at casinos, both of which attract robberies because of their cash payouts.

“You run into that security nightmare that legitimate casinos deal with by coordinating with police,” Karson said. “Any business that’s illegal doesn’t have that option. That leads to a potentially nasty cycle.”

As we know, Harris County has tightened its enforcement on game rooms thanks to some legislative help, and after surviving a lawsuit, enforcement is on in full swing. It’s not a surprise that some of this activity might cross the border into Fort Bend, or that Fort Bend might be a bit proactive about trying to stop it. I figure Fort Bend will get the legislative help it now seeks in expanding its authority against game rooms, much as Harris did in 2013, and I won’t be surprised if other counties follow suit.

What did surprise me in that story was the almost casual mention of the “other residents” who think game rooms should be legalized. I’m not sure if there are actual people making that case, or if that’s just sort of a clumsy shorthand for support for expanded gambling in Texas, as there wasn’t any further exploration of it. I wouldn’t have given it much more thought had I not also received this email from Houston Controller candidate Carroll Robinson, which discusses the very subject of game rooms and legalized gambling:

The Houston Chronicle has recently reported that “local investigations have revealed how lucrative the illegal gaming trade can be, providing operators with as much as $20,000 per day. With such establishments spread across some 700 strip centers in the county, their total proceeds could be larger than the [$1.55 billion] budget for all Harris County government.…”

Not only are illegal gaming rooms generating hundreds of millions of dollars per year in untaxed revenue, they are also magnets for crime. Wouldn’t it be better to legalize slot machines (at existing legal horse and dog racing tracks) and Casinos in Houston and allow the city to regulate them and collect extra revenues to pay for city services?

Legalizing slot machines at existing race tracks and legalizing casinos would also help eliminate illegal gaming rooms and the crime associated with them.
Even Metro would receive revenue from the increased sales tax revenue generated from legalized gaming.

The City of Houston should investigate and evaluate all its options for legalizing and regulating slot machines and casino gaming under its Home Rule Authority.

I can’t say I’ve seen many city candidates take a position on expanded gambling in Texas, as that’s a matter for the Legislature and not likely to directly intersect with Houston. Sam Houston Race Park is outside city limits, and I can’t imagine a casino being built here. I’m sure there would be some effect on the city if one or both of these things were to be legalized, but I doubt it would be much. I don’t know how much effect it would have on the game rooms, but my guess is that we’d still have them regardless. You can like the idea of expanded gambling or not – as you know, I’m very ambivalent – I just don’t think it has much to do with the game room issue.

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