Updated 11:25 a.m.
Advocates for a strip club tax that raises money for state services say their effort to change which programs benefit from the fee is dead. They say they couldn't get the support needed in the Senate to keep the measure — which would direct all revenue from the program to sexual assault victims, as opposed to sharing it with a low-income health insurance program — in a fiscal matters bill.
The state’s $5 “pole tax” on strip club patrons can’t seem to avoid controversy. This time, it’s an effort to direct all the proceeds to sexual assault victims, as opposed to sharing the money with a low-income health insurance pool.
Lawmakers approved the strip club admissions tax in 2007 to raise money for sexual assault programs and low-income health insurance. The measure has been tied up in litigation ever since, with strip clubs arguing it’s a tax on free speech.
This session, while awaiting a ruling on the case from the Texas Supreme Court, lawmakers attempted a preemptive strike. Fearing, as lower courts have suggested, that linking strip clubs to health insurance was too big of a stretch, they easily added language to a large health reform bill directing all of the strip club fee’s revenues — originally estimated at $87 million over two years — to sexual assault victims and prevention. That measure, Senate Bill 23, died on the clock in the House.
The strip club language is back in the special session — first on Senate Bill 7, a sweeping health reform bill, and now as an amendment to Senate Bill 1, a fiscal matters bill that contains the state’s school finance plan. But it’s in trouble.
Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock and the author of SB 1, says the purpose of the bill is to fund state government and schools, not to be a landing pad for controversial legislation. He said his colleagues in the upper chamber are lobbying hard on both sides of the issue and that he doesn’t see the provision sticking as lawmakers work out their differences in conference committee.
“I’m trying to be a traffic cop,” he said. “I’m trying to keep a lot of things off of it.”
But supporters of the strip club fee say all kinds of other controversial amendments have been added to SB 1 and don’t seem to be at risk of being killed.
“The courts reviewing the bill … have made it clear that [using the revenue for health insurance] is not a good fit,” said Mica Mosbacher, an advocate for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault and a sexual assault survivor. "SB 1 provides a remedy.”
And Rep. Jim Pitts, the House’s lead budget writer, said he hasn’t lost hope for the strip club fee clean-up. He said the House members on the conference committee largely support the measure — which involves distribution, not collection, of the fee and had no real opposition during the regular session. The fee has been collected here and there since 2007, but none of the money has been spent, pending the outcome of the court case.
“I’m not saying I’m having an easy time with it,” Pitts said. “But we are working on it.”
Gov. Rick Perry hopes lawmakers get the job done: "The governor is aware of this provision and believes it is important to fund programs that support the victims of sexual abuse and assault," said Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed.
Lawrence Collins, a lobbyist working for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said the legislative fix to the strip club fee got added so easily during the regular session because lawmakers — even those who opposed the legislation — were so sidelined with other bills. Now, in the less-busy special session, he said, “they’ve got time to come forward and assert themselves.”
“Support from the governor and the House appear to be very strong,” Collins said. “We’ve got radio silence in the Senate right now.”