8-liners attacked and defended by members of audience at county meeting
A capacity crowd of opponents and defenders of gaming halls filled the county library annex Tuesday evening, some demanding to know why Willacy County has not banned the “maquinitas,” or 8- liners, while surrounding counties have closed down the casinos.
Owners and employees spoke of the good they claim they are doing by providing jobs, donating to charitable causes and providing entertainment and social life for elderly people in rural areas.
“Is gambling still legal,” asked Antonia Rocha of Sebastian, directing her question to Willacy County District Attorney Annette Hinojosa. “ Why is it illegal in other counties, but not in Willacy? There are law enforcement officers here? What do you say?”
A store and restaurant in Sebastian have been harmed by the presence of 8-liner parlors,” Rocha said.
Willacy County Judge Aurelio “Keter” Guerra explained that officials could not answer questions from the audience, that they could only listen to public opinion at the hearing.
Because a high turnout was expected and the subject of the gaming halls is so controversial, there was a large contingent of law enforcement officers present, including Sheriff Larry Spence and a large number of deputies, constables and even Texas Department of Public Safety troopers. However, there were only small outbursts from people in attendance and no arrests were made.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Oscar de Luna and Precinct 4 Commissioner Eduardo Gonzales also participated in the public hearing on a petition filed by county citizens for oversight of game parlors in unincorporated areas and to discuss Texas House Bill 2123.
Notably absent were Precinct 3 Commissioner Henry de la Paz, who when mayor of Lyford, was openly supportive of 8-liners, and Precinct 1 Commissioner Eliberto “Beto” Guerra, who also has been supportive of 8-liners.
Edward Sandoval, an attorney who lives in Lyford, urged county officials not to consider regulating 8-liners by issuing permits.
Despite denials by owners and operators of 8-liner halls that gambling takes place on their premises, Sandoval said, “I think that would be approval. I think that it would be almost impossible to operate those machines and stay within the (state) law.”
As Texas law now exists, the only gambling that is legal in the state are the Texas Lottery and bingo run for charities, he said.
Local residents wanted to know how Raymondville closed all its 8-liners but more and more seem to be opening in Lyford and especially Sebastian.
Some audience members who were defenders of eightliners said landing a job at a maquinita (little machine) hall has totally changed their lives.
Cyndal Garcia, who usually lives in Port Lavaca, said she came all the way to the Rio Grande Valley to get a job in an 8-liner hall, burst into tears as she told officials how she is now able to provide for her father, who is ill, take care of her baby and help family members.
“I drove three hours to get this job,” she said. “Now I have a house, now I have a car. Don’t close them down, I will have nothing.”
Pastor Joe Tognetti, who is a 1st United Methodist Church preacher in Lyford and Edcouch, said he feels empathy for people who work in the 8- liners but also for elderly people, some who are blind or in wheelchairs, who find happiness socializing at the halls. “But I am mainly concerned about the issue of gambling addiction.”
Many other speakers condemned the gaming halls for draining the funds of people with very little income, many on public assistance, who spend money they need for rent, food, clothing and medicine at the maquinitas, hoping for a big win.
Co-pastor, Sindy Uzupan, of United Pentecostal Church of Raymondville, said she is “the one on the other end of the telephone,” taking calls from people who have squandered their welfare checks or small savings on the gaming machines and then have to ask for help to pay their rent, electric bill, to buy groceries or cannot afford clothing or other necessities.
“I don’t want gambling rooms regulated,” she said. “I want them removed from our county,” the pastor said.
One elderly man, who said he has farmed over 50 years, said he is not against gambling in principle, but does object to people who are on welfare, food stamps or any other public assistance, being able to spend money provided by taxpayers on gambling.
“I’m a farmer, that’s the biggest kind of gambling there is,” he said. “But I gamble my money, not tax money.”
One woman from Raymondville, said she had a job in an 8-liner hall and can see how it provides income to families, how money earned at 8-liners provides cash that is spent locally, to buy groceries and pay rent and provide necessities. If not spending it in the machines, they would be buying scratchoff (Texas Lottery tickets) or playing bingo.”
Tears streaming down her face, she said, “When I got clean and sober in 2008, they were the only ones that would give me a job.”
Eduardo Garcia, owner of the Triple 7 game room in Sebastian, also became emotional about his efforts to do good in the community.
“I pay my people $12 an hour,” he said. “I don’t fire them. He has risked criticism by having his employees working to fix up a local park, he said. “I always donate to the kids,” he said of local charitable causes.
“Investigate me, I don’t have a bank account. We bought 100 bikes for kids, when we were in Raymondville. I spent $500 for a light in front so nobody will get run over (on the road in front of his Sebastian building). “I’m here to grow Sebastian. I’m here to help.”