May 24, 2007
Strip club fee passes the Senate

I confess, I hadn't paid very close attention to Rep. Ellen Cohen's bill to raise money for sexual assault prevention by imposing a $5 per customer fee on strip clubs because I didn't think it would make it through. Clearly, I was wrong about that.

The measure, pushed through the House earlier by Rep. Ellen Cohen, would require the clubs to take a daily count of patrons and pay the state $5 for each one. Those records would be subject to audits from the state comptroller.

It would be up to the clubs to determine how much, if any, of the burden to pass on to the customers.

The fee is expected to raise $87 million over the next biennium -- $25 million of which would go toward a sex assault prevention fund. The rest would go to the Texas health opportunity pool, which is used to provide assistance to low-income people.


It's not clear how many establishments in Texas would be affected by the bill. Tax records in the State Comptroller's Office list 151 sexually oriented businesses that serve alcohol.

But some clubs that feature topless or nude performances do not serve alcohol and therefore are not on the liquor tax rolls.

The measure is moving through the Legislature as the city of Houston prepares to shut down sexually oriented businesses that operate near schools, churches, parks and one another.

"The source of revenue may come and go," Cohen said. "But it will not affect the original intent of the bill, to set aside the first $25 million for sexual assault prevention."

I wonder if the fiscal note on this one has changed in light of the recent unpleasantness in Houston. Seems to me the impact could be pretty big.

Speaking of our endangered local establishments, the Chron is calling on them to surrender.

Despite the definitive ruling by Judge Atlas, some owners are appealing to a higher court for a restraining order to stall city enforcement. Others have filed suit in state district court seeking to allow the businesses to operate at their current sites in order to recoup the owners' investments.

After the decade-long effort involving the support of three Houston mayors and a succession of City Council lineups, the ordinance clearly enjoys strong support from the majority of Houstonians and their representatives.

Whether one accepts or disagrees with the claim by ordinance supporters that SOBs create environments around them conducive to crime, communities across the United States have successfully regulated the businesses and set conditions for their operations. Houston has the right to do so, as well.

The fact that the businesses pay city taxes does not mean they should be immune from site restrictions. Once the businesses set up in legal locations, similar revenue likely would flow. In fact, the departure of some of the largest clubs from a valuable area near the Galleria might provoke redevelopment that would bring the city more tax dollars.

Rather than continue to wage costly and likely futile court fights to delay the inevitable, Houston SOB owners should drop their legal actions and find suitable properties for relocation. In return, city officials should work with club owners who commit to relocating in a reasonable period of time to avoid unnecessary arrests of innocent employees while the process is under way.

Does this ordinance "clearly enjoy strong support from the majority of Houstonians"? I suppose it must, given the lack or any organized resistance to its enforcement (anyone out there remember Americans for Legal Freedom? Those were the days) and the lack of waffling from City Council members, who undoubtedly would be looking for a way to walk this back if they were hearing it from their constituents. The one place I've seen strong disagreement with this is in the utterly non-representative comments to Chron stories on the subject. There's a good one to this editorial, from EdT, who notes that the ordinance really only makes sense in the context of zoning, which Houstonians do not support. Beyond that, I can't say this assertion is off base.

The talk about "once the businesses have set up in legal locations" is laughable. The whole reason there's been a decade-long court fight is because every one of these clubs was in a legal location back in 1997. City Council changed the rules on them, and they - quite justifiably - took to the courts for relief. Had there been some form of grandfathering, this matter would have been settled years ago.

And once they do move to a spot that's now legal, who's to say that will be the end of it? Empty space is a rare commodity in Houston. What happens when an apartment complex gets built 1400 feet from the new Men's Club? And who's to say that Harris County won't adopt similar rules now that Houston has taken the legal burden off of them? From the perspective of a club owner, I'm not seeing a good reason to stop fighting, because as far as I can tell there's no assurance that relocating will bring them across the finish line. If this ordinance really is about regulation and not elimination, addressing this issue would at least be a decent starting point.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 24, 2007 to That's our Lege

Never underestimate the power of victimization to push through a questionable policy, although I notice that the statewide smoking ban didn't survive the session (thank god).

I raised some questions about the fiscal soundness of this on my blog when it passed the House. I just don't know that it will raise the funds it purports to raise, and like you mention, with many strip clubs in Houston being shut down, it will raise less.

Posted by: Toby Belch on May 24, 2007 9:33 AM