Nevada lawmakers squeamish about prostitution tax
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By BRENDAN RILEY
Associated Press Writer
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada taxes you when you have a drink, when you catch a show and when you buy some smokes — and of course it gets a piece of your action at the casino. But if you’re looking for a sin-tax haven, you could head to a brothel.
The state has not collected a dollar in taxes from prostitution since it was legalized in rural counties more than 30 years ago, and it’s doubtful that it will anytime soon.
A bill that would levy a $5 tax on sex acts appears to have no chance in the Legislature, even though the state is facing a more than $2.8 billion revenue shortfall.
"I don’t know why people won’t recognize that we have a legal industry," said Sen. Bob Coffin, who is pushing for a tax on the world’s oldest profession. "I’m willing to go in and do the dirty work if no one else will."
Coffin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee, said the state is desperate for revenue and he "will go anywhere" to find it, including the state’s 25 legal brothels.
The Nevada Brothel Owners Association supports the tax, which Coffin estimated would raise at least $2 million a year. Part of the money would fund a counseling agency for sex workers.
"I’d love to see us helping out," said Alexis, a 39-year-old prostitute at the Chicken Ranch brothel in Pahrump outside Las Vegas. She declined to give her last name.
"The bottom line is that the Chicken Ranch is a legal business," said Bob Fisher, a spokesman for the brothel. "Why should we be looked at any differently or not be given the same respect as any other business?"
Nevadans pioneered legalized gambling, prize fights and quickie divorces, and for the most part tolerated prostitution even before their state joined the union in 1864. But a long state history of going against the grain isn’t likely to be enough to advance Coffin’s proposal for complicated, contradictory reasons: appearances, political ambition, women’s rights, morality — even prudishness in a state where you’d least expect it.
A survey by The Associated Press of the seven Senate Taxation Committee members indicates Coffin’s bill will likely be at least one vote short of the four needed to move the measure out of committee when it comes up for consideration Tuesday.
"Legislators don’t want to deal with it," said Guy Rocha, a Nevada historian and former state archivist. "It’s so charged politically, they just want it to go away."
The issue also has some strange, er, bedfellows in opposition.
"Religious conservatives will line up with liberals and feminists who see this as demeaning to women," Rocha said. "Some don’t want to give prostitution any legitimacy, even though it’s legal in many rural counties."
Ten Nevada counties that authorize prostitution by local ordinance are the only places in the country that allow brothels, although Rhode Island allows people to pay for sex behind closed doors. Prostitution is outlawed in five Nevada counties, including the two encompassing its biggest cities, Las Vegas and Reno.
The Mustang Ranch east of Reno was licensed as Nevada’s first legal brothel in 1971. Brothels now operate in outlying areas around the state, paying local jurisdictions assorted fees that can be a significant portion of their budgets.
Coffin said the state is desperate to find money for essential services, and lawmakers could impose a batch of new or higher taxes this year to keep programs afloat.
About 30 percent of the state’s general fund budget comes from taxes on the gambling industry, and lawmakers are considering increasing taxes on liquor and cigarettes. The state also imposes a 10 percent tax on admissions, drinks and food at various entertainment venues, including strip clubs, leaving Coffin to wonder why prostitution is not included.
Taxing brothels has been discussed for years, but the industry’s lobbyist in Carson City, George Flint, doubts that it will happen.
"There’s a little electric fence there, and they don’t go beyond it very well," he said. "Nobody is able to reach a comfort level to just address it objectively."
Lawmakers have widely varying reasons for saying no.
"There is an implication there that the business takes a toll, at least on some women," said Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, one of the committee members opposed to the plan. "To then tax such a business seems to me incongruous."
Another committee member, Sen. Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, said he was opposed to the prostitution tax for philosophical reasons because he didn’t believe in taxing services.
Sen. Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, said she had heard no reason to support to the plan and was concerned it could be seen as an endorsement of prostitution.
"It’s tough enough raising teenage daughters without adding this to the mix," she said.
Even if the measure manages to win the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate and Assembly, Gov. Jim Gibbons has said he’s opposed to it because by taxing prostitution "there’s a recognition of the legality of it."
Those in the prostitution business note that its legality is not in question.
"The brothels are legal, licensed," said Alexis, the Chicken Ranch prostitute. "I would absolutely love to make a contribution, especially if it helps with counseling for other prostitutes who are doing this illegally."
Coffin’s levy could be paid by patrons of the prostitutes, the sex workers or their employers. The bill would impose the $5 tax on anyone who pays for or collects money for services of a prostitute. It would apply to both illegal and legal prostitution, although it wasn’t immediately clear how the illegal activity would be tracked for tax purposes.
The money also would help pay for a state ombudsman for sex workers. One of the ombudsman’s main tasks would be to help sex workers find other jobs.
"There’s a need for assistance for sex workers here," Coffin said. "So when you take a look at the need and the fact that it can be fulfilled with this tax, that’s a good thing."
At the Chicken Ranch, Alexis didn’t see the need for in-house counseling.
"We’re just a bunch of levelheaded individuals here. I don’t think any of us would need counseling. We’ve got girls who are going to law school."