In Texas, gambling is illegal in almost all forms. But you’d never know it driving down Business 77 in Willacy County. It cuts through a rural area of the Rio Grande Valley, but bares a passing resemblance to Las Vegas. It’s a headache for law enforcement, but a remedy could be on the way.
It’s a Friday night in the tiny south Texas community of Sebastian, and the gravel parking lot in front of the Silver Star game room is packed. A blinking neon arrow points to a converted trailer on Business 77. Inside, it’s a single rectangular room with a low ceiling imbued with the smell of cigarettes. There’s a sign on each wall that says “NO CASH PAYOUTS.”
The only light comes from a small heating lamp at the snack bar, and from the dozens of screens that sit along its walls. They look like old arcade games, but they’re actually electronic gambling machines called eight liners: video slot machines like what you’d find at a full-blown casino.
I get 10 $1 bills from an employee sitting in a clear plastic booth on the far wall, and sit down at one of the machines. I burn through the cash in about three minutes, then watch the other customers – most of whom are elderly — feed bill after bill into the machines.
It’s the same scene up and down Business 77, not just at the Silver Star, but also at the El Toro, the Great Eagle, and the one Elida Cardenas lives near, the Sizzling 7s.
“To me they’re not pleasant,” Cardenas says. “In some occasions there was fights at those eight liners. And some people, they’re out there ‘till midnight, one in the morning. They’re so close to family homes.”
But, according to Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz, the problem isn’t just that they bring noise and crime into quiet neighborhoods.
“You have to pay cash to these folks to encourage them to come back, that allows you to stay in business,” Saenz says.
But in Texas, paying cash is illegal. You can offer eight liners for entertainment purposes, but you can’t award any prize worth more than $5. So operators look for creative ways to get around the law.
“The operator would say ‘well, I’m not giving cash, I’m giving $20 worth of groceries. I’m giving a debit card that you can compensate at a local store,’” Saenz says.
Saenz would know. He’s spent most of his time as Cameron County’s DA fighting eight liners. You find them all over the state, but they’re particularly pervasive in South Texas. When Saenz took office, they were all over the county, illicitly clearing tens of thousands of dollars a night. Now, there are hardly any – but closing them took a lot of time and resources. Keeping them tamped down still does.
“I don’t want to spend time on eight liners. I’ve got murders. I’ve got child abusers. I’ve got drugs coming in,” Saenz says.
It’s a problem that caught the attention of State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a Democrat from Laredo.
“You have a lot of eight liners all over the state of Texas right now,” Raymond says. “What I did is try to come up with something that would address the existing situation in a way that would make it better.”
Here’s how it works: if the bill becomes law, eight liner gambling would initially remain illegal in Texas. But then, individual cities and counties could vote on whether to legalize them in their jurisdiction – like local votes on whether to sell alcohol.
“I don’t like gambling,” Raymond says. “I’m not into it, that’s not my deal. But there are people that do. Well, people are adults, they can decide what they want to do. Instead of just the wild west out there, this would allow us to go in and do something meaningful where we would stop the illegal gambling that does occur, and then we would allow communities to decide yea or nay.”
It’s an idea that, in principle, some members of South Texas law enforcement can get behind. Ricardo Rodriguez is the district attorney of Hidalgo County.
“If it’s operating legally, and it’s the law, I’ll support it. I have no problem with it,” Rodriguez says.
Legalizing eight liner gambling in his jurisdiction could cut down on the resources he’d have to devote to it. But in Cameron County, Saenz supports letting voters have their say, but he’s skeptical that the proposal would stabilize the situation. Edward Sandoval is the county’s first assistant district attorney.
“It doesn’t provide for any type of regulatory authority over these entities,” Sandoval says. “So it allows for a local election. Yes, you’re going to authorize them, but where’s the commission? What’s being proposed as-is is devoid of that regulation, and that’s concerning because it’s going to allow for people to take advantage of people.”
Raymond says that the eight liners would need to be licensed by the state, and by their local city or county government. And that regulation, much like it does now, would fall to local law enforcement.