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The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz

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There was no doubt about the legislative intent. State Sen. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, figured the strip clubs of Las Vegas had plenty of extra money lying around, and decided Nevada state government needed an additional share of that loot to fund her various social improvement programs.

(“Additional,” since strip club owners already collect and pay all the usual sales and business tax licenses, not to mention, in most cases, extra levies as businesses selling alcohol.)

So, in 2003, Ms. Titus -- the double-dipping UNLV “political science” professor who hopes to be Nevada’s next governor -- introduced her 10 percent “live entertainment tax,” targeting it specifically at clubs where young ladies perform in various states of undress.

“You can justify a tax when an industry creates a special burden,” Ms. Titus explains, “and the adult industry certainly does that.”

Dancers create an extra burden on the taxpayers because they work as independent contractors and don’t receive health insurance, Ms. Titus explains. The existence of the nude and topless clubs also creates an additional burden on social service and law enforcement agencies, the gubernatorial hopeful contends.

This is nonsense.

First, as ACLU general counsel Allen Lichtenstein points out, “She’s flat out wrong. The only justification for special taxes is to pay for administrative costs. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that First Amendment businesses can’t be singled out for special taxes.”

But more stunningly, can Ms. Titus really be so ignorant of the kind of money that dancers at these establishment earn? For many, it’s enough to support a quite handsome lifestyle while flying in from other cities for a two-day work week.

Yes, as with professional athletes, one hopes they’re investing wisely for a day when their physical talents may desert them. But the notion that any of these ladies will be sleeping in the park under a shopping cart on Saturday night or waiting in line for free medical care at the county hospital emergency room is laughable.

Does Ms. Titus assert many of these dancers are on welfare? That they send more children than usual to the government schools? (And if so, will there soon be an extra “Titus Tax” on members of religious faiths that tend to have more children?) That they tend to burden the state’s health care system by suffering diabetes and emphysema at rates out of proportion to their numbers?

Does she think the clubs’ customers -- mostly out-of-towners eager to spend hundreds of dollars per night -- will soon be signing up for local rent assistance? If none of these, what on earth is she talking about?

If medical costs are Ms. Titus’ concern, when will we see her special taxes on old people and the obese? If “numbers of police calls” justified extra taxes, the first surcharges should surely go to roadhouse taverns and apartment complexes that rent to young, unmarried, alcoholic couples. Right?

“If you look at how many times police respond to our club, it’s not that often,” says Dolores Eliades, general manager of the Olympic Garden. “And the state is making money on all the business licenses and the sheriff’s cards that dancers have to have.”

On April 18, the owners of eight of Las Vegas’ best-known strip clubs filed suit in federal court against the entertainment tax, seeking its repeal and a refund of the millions of dollars it’s already cost them. The lawsuit says the tax is a violation of their First Amendment rights of expression, and that the implementation process has become so riddled with exemptions that its collection has become “arbitrary and capricious.”

The ACLU, which repeatedly warned lawmakers at the outset that the tax was unconstitutional, plans to file a brief in support.

Some may cringe at the assertion that the old bump ’n grind enjoys the same First Amendment protection as significant novels, theater, journalism or painting. But in fact, once censors get started, they never know when to stop. The courts hold properly when they rule it’s none of the bureaucrats’ business to decide when such expressions or performances are “elevated” of “high-toned” enough to deserve constitutional protection.

Besides, given the obvious intent here to single out one type of business simply because some lawmakers don’t like it or because it brings a Willie Sutton gleam to their eyes -- an impression reinforced by the subsequent granting of exemptions to many kinds of “live entertainment” other than that offered by the plaintiffs -- this tax is unfair and inequitable on its face, before the First Amendment concerns are even reached.

Make no mistake: Ms. Titus has extorted more “protection money” from these businesses than confessed civil slut Erin Kenny ever did. Why, she’ll even join with Kenny in claiming she did it “for the children.” The only difference is that Ms. Titus was smart enough to follow Vito Corleone’s advice, and do it with lawyers carrying briefcases.

Taxes are supposed to be the same for everyone. In a free country, those who invest wisely and make a lot of money are not supposed to be singled out for “special extractions.” If Ms. Titus wants to go down to Treasures or Little Darlings and pass the hat on Saturday nights, urging the dancers there to reach into their G-strings and voluntarily support her favorite charities, she is free to do so.

But this tax was a stick-up from the start.