'Skin tax' considered for strip clubs

Feb 16 2012 - 2:34pm

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Illinois already charges so-called sin taxes on smokes, booze and casino gambling. Now state lawmakers are thinking about imposing a $5 skin tax to get into strip clubs.

Club owners are in an uproar, arguing that the tax might put smaller strip joints out of business and throw dancers, bartenders, bouncers and valet attendants out of work. They worry some customers already are fed up with admission fees, let alone taxes on top.

"We wouldn't want that," said Tiffany Winkler, manager of the Chicago club the Pink Monkey.

The Admiral Theatre is "strongly opposed to the proposed pole tax," said Sam Cecola, the North Side club's director of operations.

But state Sen. Toi Hutchinson said she's sponsoring the bill to raise money for rape crisis counseling. Businesses that profit from selling booze and skin should help aid victims of sex crimes, she said.

"My kids are growing up in a different age, a different time, and I want the communities that they live in to be safe for them," said Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields. "We all need to be working toward a society that understands violence against women is inappropriate in all circumstances and all times."

The legislation is in an early form and could change, but it would require strip club owners who serve or allow liquor to be consumed on the premises to pay the $5-a-person tax. The money would go into a special new state sexual assault prevention fund, and the state would make grants to organizations that provide community-based programs designed to reduce sexual assault or help to crime victims.

During the past few decades, Chicago and suburban towns have passed a series of ordinances to close down topless bars and push those that remain into industrial areas. The patchwork of rules means some establishments can operate only if they don't serve booze, others permit alcohol to be brought in and the amount of nudity varies as a result.

Chicago has had a long history with adult entertainers. During the 1933 World's Fair, fan dancer Sally Rand won great appreciation. Legions of exotic dancers have improvised on her bumps and grinds for decades.

The city has taken a tougher stand more recently, with restrictions helping Chicago close down several topless bars that sprang up in the Loop and Near North areas.

The new legislation emerges in Springfield as federal prosecutors have lodged charges against a father and son who allegedly skimmed $3.7 million in "house fees" from dancers at the Blackjack's Gentlemen's Club in Elgin and used the business as a front to hide additional income from an illegal bookmaking business.

Hutchinson said state funds have declined for programs addressing prevention and treatment of rape victims, and the Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a longtime advocacy group, urged her to sponsor the bill to impose the tax where there are live shows and alcoholic beverages.

The coalition's funding decreased $1.2 million over the last three budget years, said Polly Poskin, executive director of the coalition. In Chicago, the Quetzal Center closed Dec. 31 because of funding struggles, she said.

Poskin argued the combination of nude dancing and alcohol consumption furthers the objectification and vulnerability of women. There is a correlation between adult entertainment venues that serve alcohol and crimes in the businesses' neighborhoods, she said.

But adult entertainment representatives say they don't see the same connection.

Micheal Ocello, president of the Illinois Club Owners Association, hailed Hutchinson for "trying to do something good" by raising money to support sexual assault prevention and awareness groups. But Ocello said he cannot find scientific proof "that going to an adult club causes people to go out and commit rape, commit crimes."

Ocello, who oversees about 500 workers at five strip clubs in Illinois near St. Louis, suggested the smaller clubs throughout Illinois could be forced to shut down if the tax were approved.

The club owners have a powerful lobbyist who said he'll look for common ground.

"I think $5 is an absolute industry killer," said Chicago lobbyist Al Ronan, a former lawmaker. "At some point, we're going to try to come in with an alternative plan ... with money for the state coming from our industry. ... We're not out to kill it. We're out to do it right."

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