County to tighten regulations on game rooms

It’s sort of a crackdown, but within limits. And something that’s regulated is something that’s legal, so there’s that.

The regulations, made possible by a state law passed earlier this year by the Legislature, requires an establishment housing six or more video poker machines known as “eight-liners” to obtain a permit and pay a $1,000 annual fee – nearly twice what the city currently charges. The county regulations also would mandate that game rooms operate only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., have untinted windows and a sign on the outside of the building that says “Game Room” in large lettering.

Game rooms that open after the regulations take effect in March must be located at least 1,500 feet away from schools, churches and residential neighborhoods. There are an estimated 300 game rooms in unincorporated Harris County, according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said the most substantive change made to the regulations since they first were drafted was exempting “charitable” bingo halls from the distance, window and sign requirements. Those halls that operate “under a license issued by the Texas Lottery Commission” still will have to get permits from the county.

See here, here, and here for the background. The bill in question was HB1127. I don’t think these regulations are too stringent, though a mouthpiece for the gameroom operator claims that enforcing these rules will force a lot of operators underground. You can use that logic to argue against most kinds of regulation, of course. At least a regulated gameroom is one where you don’t have to worry about the cops busting in on you, and it’s one where if something bad happens to you, you can report it to the cops without them asking you embarrassing questions. It’s not like there aren’t differences in quality and openness with the current state of anarchy anyway.

Speaking of the cops, the county has now leapfrogged past the city of Houston in its ability to regulate these things. But they’re willing to share.

While the law allowing the crack down on game rooms applies to all law enforcement agencies within the county, Soard has said the county is allowing the city and other incorporated municipalities with their own law enforcement agencies to opt in to the new regulations through interlocal agreements.

On Monday, he said the Harris County Sheriff’s Office is in discussions with the city about a potential agreement that would allow the Houston Police Department to operate under the county’s regulations.

Notable differences between the county and city regulations include the definition of a game room and maximum penalties for violations.

City ordinance applies to establishments that have more than four eight-liners and imposes a standard Class C misdemeanor maximum fine of $500 for violations; the county’s proposed regulations would impose a penalty of up to $10,000 for every day a violation exists.

The city also has not been able to regulate the location of game rooms because of its virtually nonexistent zoning authority.

I’m not sure what a lack of zoning has to do with anything. Houston has been able to regulate bars, liquor stores, sexually oriented businesses, and plenty of other things. Be that as it may, it makes sense for the county and the cities to sync up on this. It would be better if the state took a unified approach as well, but one step at a time. Texpatriate has more.

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