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La Joya ordinance draws fire from DA

When the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1, District Attorney Rene Guerra fears Hidalgo County could slide down into a pit of gambling and pot smoking as he leaves office.

Guerra made his prediction this week in light of an ordinance approved by the city of La Joya regulating the use of amusement machines in the city. The ordinance, approved in September, allows businesses to pay a fee for a permit to run 8-liner machines, or maquinitas, devices resembling a slot machine.

City-of-La-Joya-Seal“If this county allows open gaming, they might as well open smoking parlors for marijuana, but that’s the new DA’s problem. That’s not my problem,” said Guerra, who was voted out of office in the March primaries after more than three decades in office.

Under La Joya’s ordinance, owners of amusement machine establishments would be subject to a $2,500 annual permit fee as well as a $1,000 fee per machine quarterly. Another $300 monthly fee per machine also is due quarterly.

Other cities in counties like Duval, Nueces, Zapata and Starr have similar ordinances requiring fees. In fact, Gregory, a town of about 2,300 outside of Corpus Christi, depended on the nearly $800,000 in revenue from amusement machines in 2012 to keep from going into bankruptcy.

La Joya Mayor Fito Salinas said the city’s been studying the issue for a year, after administrators learned that the city of Falfurrias was making $1 million annually through the fees. He talked to the Zapata County judge, who told him the same thing.

He said the city met with attorneys and talked with folks in San Benito, La Feria, Lyford and Santa Rosa – all cities in which similar ordinances have been enacted.

“We’ve done a lot of research,” he said.

The legalities of maquinitas have long been a subject of debate in Texas, where gambling in itself is illegal, which means owners of the establishments are not allowed to pay out winners in cash prizes.

In 1993 the state Legislature passed an amendment to the Texas Penal Code regarding games of chance. The amendment, dubbed the “fuzzy animal law,” allows non-cash prizes of “not more than 10 times the amount charged to play the game or device once or $5, whichever is less.”

Guerra said it would be impossible for 8-liner owners to pay the estimated thousands of dollars in fees if they weren’t rigging the machines. Just on the $300 fee alone, he said, 100 machines would cost a business $36,000 a year, and that’s not including the cost of the building and employees.

“How can you afford to pay La Joya $1,000 a machine and not be stealing?” Guerra asked. “Where am I going to get the money? I’m going to get it from the dumb people who play these machines that are not regulated. Are some people going to win? Yes, but the vast majority of the people are going to lose. They’re going to lose their checks. They’re going to put their family members on welfare.”

And if they’re not illegal, Guerra argued, why can’t teenagers play them?

“If they’re amusement machines, then we can open daycare center with slot machines?” Guerra said. “Gambling is gambling no matter what value.”

The 8-liner establishments also attract other types of crime, Guerra said, like robberies. Criminals will target the businesses because they deal in a lot of cash, he said. He also pointed to arrests made in Laredo in 2008 in an extortion scheme where police investigators were bribed by 8-liner owners not to raid their businesses. The scheme took down then-police chief Agustin Dovalina.

Any establishment that opens under his reign as DA will be shut down, he vowed. La Joya City Manager Mike Alaniz said there wouldn’t be any movement on the permits until the first of 2015 and said he wouldn’t have time to talk about the ordinance until late December.

Salinas said about 15 businesses already have filed for permits in La Joya. The ordinance limits the number of establishments in the city to 12, but Salinas said he didn’t expect the La Joya City Commission to authorize any more than five or seven because the town’s so small.

He compared the amusement machine permits to the sale of beer and wine. It’s expected, he said, when alcohol is sold, that people won’t drink and drive or do anything illegal. It’s the same with the machine permits.

“If these individuals do something wrong and get caught, well then, that’s their problem,” Salinas said.

Salinas believes Guerra’s opposition is politically motivated because La Joya city leaders sided in the March primary with Guerra’s opponent, Ricardo Rodriguez, who ended up winning the race.

“I hope there’s not violations, and I hope nobody stops it because the city of La Joya needs streets to be paved,” Salinas said. “We want to improve our sewer system and get everything we cannot get with our taxes.”

Rodriguez said it’s up to legislators in Austin to take up the issue of legalizing cash payouts or completely banning the machines. Most of the machines he’s seen are legal, and Rodriguez remembered stopping at a store recently in the Dallas area and it had 8-liners.

“The only thing I can say is, ultimately, the law is you can’t gamble,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t say I’m going to prosecute anybody who has 8-liners. I have to wait for due process to take place.”

“Even if I like them or I’m in favor of them, the law has been set where you can’t gamble with these things.”

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