CARSON CITY, Nev. – With its gleaming Vegas Strip and stucco sprawl, Nevada has touted itself as a model of the civilized West. But every so often, as happened Tuesday, holdovers from its boisterous beginnings show up at the Capitol – and they are named Chicken Ranch, Pussycat Ranch and Shady Lady.
Here’s Nevada’s dirty little secret: Many lawmakers would like to keep the state’s legal brothels a dirty little secret. Never mind the Silver State’s history of profiting off taboos or the potential cash a state tax on prostitution could bring. Each time legislators have considered such a tax, they’ve reacted with all the squeamishness of a teenager whose parents want to explain the birds and bees.
But with Nevada facing a budget gap as big as $3 billion, state Sen. Bob Coffin, a Democrat, convened a hearing Tuesday on a bill for a state tax on prostitution. (Some local entities already tax it.) If only for an afternoon, legislators were forced to reconcile the Nevada of madams and gunslingers with the Nevada of multinational corporate giants.
“Can we be so proud as to refuse money that is offered from a legal business?” Coffin asked at the hearing’s outset.
Over the next few hours, brothel owners thanked legislators for even letting them in the Capitol building. They used the word “respectability” … a lot. Three legal prostitutes advocated for the proposal, while an opponent derided the whole thing as an “act of legislative pimping.”
Through it all, lawmakers lowered their eyes and squirmed. Democratic Sen. Terry Care made a point to tell the packed hearing room that his silence should not be construed as approval.
“I don’t agree it’s respectable,” he said. “And I don’t agree it’s acceptable. It is legal.”
Coffin’s proposal, Senate Bill 369, would require a $5 tax on a prostitute’s services. The Nevada Brothel Association estimated that, even with business plummeting during the recession, the bordellos host about 365,000 patrons a year. The bill would also establish a state ombudsman to, in part, help steer sex workers to other professions.
Tuesday’s hearing ended without a vote, and the proposal will die in the Senate Taxation Committee unless legislators take action this week.
Though the plan is thought to have little chance of passing, it has stirred up all sorts of scorn. Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons told the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “I’m not a supporter of legalizing prostitution in Nevada. So by taxing it, there’s a recognition of the legality of it.”
The brothels – which are banned in the counties that include Reno and Las Vegas – are a mixed blessing for this increasingly high-profile state. Their mere existence helps Las Vegas sell itself as the city of sin, and the HBO show “Cathouse,” set at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, essentially advertises Nevada’s illicit offerings.