Clubs stripped of First Amendment rights?
Owners, voyeurs protest $5 a-pop levy that will go to help Texas sex-crime victims
DALLAS - Texas, where strip clubs have given rise to Anna Nicole Smith and many other less-generously endowed performers, is about to make it more expensive to watch a little bump and grind.
In what some have dubbed the "pole tax," the Lone Star State will require its 150 or so strip clubs to collect a $5-per-customer levy, with most of the proceeds going to help rape victims. The tax goes into effect on New Year's Day.
Club owners and some customers say the money is going to a noble cause, but they argue that the tax infringes on their First Amendment right to freedom of expression, that it will drive some bars out of business and that it unfairly links their industry to sex crimes.
"I've already stopped advertising, and we're raising our cover charges. But this is going to kill some of the smaller clubs," said Dawn Rizos, who runs The Lodge, a Hemingway-inspired place that has exotic animal heads on the walls and is packed after Dallas Cowboys games at nearby Texas Stadium.
The strip clubs are suing to block the tax, which state officials estimate will raise more than $40 million a year, based on liquor-sales figures. If accurate, the estimate suggests at least 8 million people a year go to Texas strip clubs to get a lap dance or watch women pole-dance in a G-string.
Supporters of the stripper tax say they are not out to close the clubs - that would just mean less money for victims of sexual assault.
"This is an industry that largely employs women, and this gives them an opportunity to raise funds for a crime that affects women," said state Rep. Ellen Cohen, a Houston Democrat who sponsored the bill, approved by the Legislature in May.
"I've been told the fees to get into these places can be $10, $15. I don't think another $5 is going to prevent someone from going," said Cohen, who is also president of a women's center that could get funding from the new law.
Strip clubs occupy a mythic place in Texas lore as a spot where young women can work their way through college and girls with dreams of Hollywood stardom get their start on the lowest rung of show biz.
Texas' topless spots range from dimly lit dives with pickup trucks lined up outside to gentlemen's clubs that attract men in business suits. The pole tax is unlikely to have much effect on the "finer" establishments.
On a recent weekday at The Lodge, the cars in the valet parking lot included BMWs, a Ferrari and several Mercedes. At a table in a back corner sat Jerry Trigg, an architect who said he goes alone or takes customers to clubs in Dallas and Houston about three times a week.
Trigg said he typically spends about $50 during each solo visit and $200 or more when entertaining clients. He said a $5 tax won't affect the number of Diet Cokes he consumes, tips he doles out or lap dances enjoyed.
But Elle, a 28-year-old former Dallas dancer, said she worries the tax will hurt women like herself who work their way through college by stripping. She earned a degree from the University of Texas at Arlington and said she now runs a computer-servicing business with her husband.
Elle said she averaged $200 a day at the Lodge - "on good days, a hell of a lot more."
Some customers and clubs say it is not the extra five bucks; they resent the implication that strip clubs lead men to commit sex crimes.
Rizos said The Lodge already pays the state $1.3 million a year in taxes, and the topless tax will be an additional $60,000 per month.
In their lawsuit, the clubs said nude dancing is protected by the First Amendment. Besides, they argued, the tax is so broad it could apply to concerts by performers like Madonna or Britney Spears who wear low-cut tops. *