Llano County to regulate game rooms; Burnet County to follow
Game rooms are popping up in Llano and Burnet counties, and the Llano County Commissioners Court has decided to do something about it. Commissioners will hold a public hearing and have a second reading on an ordinance regulating game rooms during their next regular meeting, which is at 9 a.m. April 25 in the Llano County Sheriff’s Office on Texas 16 at County Road 412.
The Burnet County Commissioners Court might soon follow suit.
The game rooms in question are not arcades equipped with family-friendly pinball machines and video games. They contain computers loaded with gambling software, usually slot machine games, that customers pay to play.
In the proposed ordinance, a game room is defined as a for-profit business in a building with six or more pieces of equipment that offer players the opportunity to win something based on chance.
This does not include Mr. Gatti’s, Chuck E. Cheese, or Dave and Busters, as Section 47 of the Texas Penal Code grants what it terms the “fuzzy animal” exemption. The proposed Llano County ordinance also makes that distinction and includes an exemption for establishments that make 51 percent or more of their profits from the sale of food and beverages.
The ordinance is aimed at places where adults pay to play on computers, called eight-liners, that rack up points that can be exchanged for gift cards, merchandise, music downloads, or money. Usually, the gift cards or downloads can be sold back for cash.
“If you go in and place a bet and win, if they pay out anything worth more than $5, that’s illegal gambling in the state of Texas,” District Attorney Sonny McAfee told DailyTrib.com.
Until two years ago, game rooms operated with little oversight or regulation, although the authority to do so is written into Article III, Section 47(a) of the Texas Constitution, which requires the Legislature to prohibit “lotteries and gift enterprises.”
“For the longest time, they were regulated by the Department of Public Safety and the Attorney General’s Office,” Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham said after the Commissioners Court meeting Monday, March 14. “The folks that regulated bingo regulated it. Regulation did not have any consistent teeth across the state.”
In 2019, the Texas Legislature passed Texas Local Government Code 234.140, giving all Texas counties the authority to license and inspect game rooms. The COVID-19 pandemic got in the way of Llano County moving any quicker, Cunningham said. Commissioners have been working on the ordinance for about a year.
“We noticed (game rooms) popping up about two years ago,” Cunningham continued. “We tried to to see what it was going to entail, and, sure enough, they are becoming more and more prevalent.”
Neighboring Blanco County enacted regulations in 2021. As more counties adopt regulations, game rooms will move into unregulated counties, Cunningham said.
DailyTrib.com knows of at least two in Burnet County, one each in Burnet and Marble Falls. The Marble Falls location fronts as a thrift shop called A&P Enterprises Resale at the corner of Avenue K and RR 1431. Majic Cafe Sweepstakes is on CR 250 across Texas 29 from the Burnet County Sheriff’s Office.
“Burnet County officials are still contemplating options on the opportunity to enact an ordinance,” said Burnet County Judge James Oakley. “As county judge, I would support an initiative brought forward to the Commissioners Court by law enforcement and prosecution representatives.”
Burnet County Attorney Eddie Arredondo said a Burnet County ordinance is in the development stage and will align with what is being done in the four counties that make up the 33rd and 424th Judicial District. McAfee is the district attorney for the district, which includes Burnet, Llano, Blanco, and San Saba counties.
“A great deal of discussion and coordination is occurring,” Arredondo said. “It is possible that such regulations may be adopted for Burnet County in the near future.”
According to Llano County Sheriff Bill Blackburn, as many as seven game rooms are operating in the county. Cunningham said he knows of four in Kingsland, one in Buchanan Dam, and one in Llano. DailyTrib.com knows where two of the four in Kingsland are located. Both are incognito with no signage and few windows and located on RR 1431 within about a block of each other.
Once the Llano County Game Room Regulations are approved by commissioners, game rooms will have to apply for permits, which will cost $1,000 a year. Employees must undergo criminal background checks as no one with a criminal record can work in a game room. The county has 30 days to decide on whether or not to issue a permit after the application is made. Annual renewals must be filed 60 days before the expiration date.
Locations also will be restricted. Game rooms cannot be located within 2,500 feet of a public or private school, a place of worship, a residential neighborhood or land where a residential neighborhood is planned, or another game room.
Games rooms cannot require memberships to play or lock their doors during business hours to restrict access to the public. A game room can open no earlier than 8 a.m. and must close no later than 10 p.m. Penalties for violations can be up to $10,000 a day.
But, said District Attorney McAfee, penalties are not the issue.
“Our object is compliance with the law, not just punishing somebody,” he told DailyTrib.com. “If we have the ordinance, we can work on compliance first.”
The 30-page document outlines its purpose in the first four paragraphs of the first page, noting that game rooms are often associated with “adverse secondary effects,” including property crimes, weapon offenses, illegal drug use, and drug trafficking.
McAfee summed it up this way.
“(The game rooms) prey on the people who can least afford to gamble on these machines,” he said. “You find a lot of narcotic transactions in the parking lots. A lot of crime occurs at the locations where these things are.”
A game room administrator will be appointed by Llano County to handle permit applications. The ordinance also sets up cooperation between city and county law enforcement so everything is handled under one umbrella despite jurisdiction.
Rick Sniktin in the Llano County Attorney’s Office has been tasked with the duties of game room administrator.