LAS VEGAS – In revenue-strapped Nevada, where foreclosed homes dot suburban streets and poker tables sit empty, it’s come to this: A state legislator wants to talk about legalizing – and taxing – prostitution in Reno and Las Vegas.
“It’s almost de facto legal. It’s running unregulated,” said state Sen. Bob Coffin, a Democrat who serves as chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee. He also said legalization would better protect sex workers.
Coffin, a Las Vegas insurance broker and book dealer, said he also would be willing to discuss taxes on Nevada’s legal brothels, strip clubs and escort services.
Further government regulation of the sex industry would be likely to draw ire from social conservatives, casino executives, feminists and suburbanites who prefer not to think about the bordellos down the road. It also would test Nevadans’ tolerance for brothels, a Wild West throwback unique to the state and legally confined to counties with fewer than 400,000 residents.
“I think it’s an appalling way for a state to make money,” said Melissa Farley, executive director of the nonprofit Prostitution Research and Education group in San Francisco. “Once there’s an awareness of what prostitution does to women, it makes no sense to allow it, to tax it, to decriminalize it or mainstream it.”
Although experts said legalizing prostitution in Nevada’s urban centers was unlikely, rural brothels have asked at least twice to pay state taxes. Some owners believe prostitution is less likely to be outlawed if it contributes to state coffers.
Coffin’s initiative comes as Nevada’s tourist-reliant economy is foundering. Compared with the same month in 2007, November gaming revenue was down almost 15 percent statewide. Taxable sales in October were down 6.2 percent.
In lieu of raising taxes, Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons has proposed, among other things, slashing funding for higher education and cutting the pay of teachers and state workers. Democrats, who control the Legislature, have roundly drubbed those ideas.
Coffin, who has yet to put in a bill draft request, isn’t afraid of provoking debate and riling members of his own party, said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada in Reno. And when the state’s part-time Legislature convenes next month, he said, Coffin’s suggestions might fare better than previous attempts to tax sex.
“If everything is on the table – and both sides say it is – then why not talk about expanding prostitution?” Herzik said. “I can’t imagine the Neon Bunny Ranch on the Strip, though I’m sure it would make money.”