A good cause, but a bad policy
THERE is a new price to be paid for looking at naked women in Texas. On January 1st the state’s strip clubs began imposing a $5 surcharge for each visitor. The “pole tax,” as it is commonly called, is expected to bring the state an additional $40m in revenue each year. Most of the proceeds will go to programmes that support victims of sexual assault.
Helping rape victims is obviously an excellent idea, and the measure was passed by the Texas legislature easily last year. But it is controversial in some quarters. Club owners, in particular, think they are being shaken down and vilified despite providing a perfectly legal service, and are already sounding a little defensive. Commercials for The Lodge, in Dallas, boast that its customers enjoy “women, manly steaks, cigars, and women.” In light of the new tax a co-owner has noted, rather less laddishly, that the club also raises money for charity via car washes. Smaller clubs are worried that their patrons cannot or will not pony up five measly dollars, a prediction that may prove true but is certainly rather depressing.
Another gripe is that the tax implies an unfair link between club patronage and sexual violence, though no evidence to support this has been presented. State representative Ellen Cohen, who sponsored the legislation, argued that connecting the two is fair because both strip clubs and sex crimes objectify women. And apparently a majority of Texas legislators were comfortable with that explanation. In 2004, in contrast, Governor Rick Perry proposed taxing strip clubs to pay for public schools. The idea was considered inappropriate and it went nowhere.
Such targeted taxes seem to be in vogue at the moment. Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, recently proposed that retailers pay a fee for selling sugar-laden fizzy drinks. The revenue would fund a city initiative to encourage healthy eating and exercise. Last year’s proposed expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Programme would have been funded by increased tobacco taxes (though the connection here also seems rather a stretch, since not that many children smoke; George Bush vetoed it anyway). In Wisconsin, a state legislator wants to raise more money for the juvenile criminal justice system via a tax on video games.
Critics say that all of these measures are punitive. Louche behaviour, after all, is not a crime. But its practitioners have had a hard time making their case. Last month opponents of the pole tax filed for a temporary injunction against it. They argued that nude dancing is a type of expression and that its free exercise should therefore not be inhibited. The judge was unimpressed.
From [The Economist]