Judge Strikes Down Texas Strip Club Fee

Tom Hymes
AUSTIN — A state district judge Friday struck down legislation that would have levied a $5 state fee on patrons of strip clubs, invalidating a measure that state officials said would have raised $50 million annually for sexual assault victims and people without health insurance.

Travis County District Judge Scott Jenkins, who in December refused to block the tax from going into effect, clearing the way for a lawsuit testing the constitutionality of the tariff, called the tax unconstitutional and said that it singled out "expression that, while politically unpopular, is nevertheless protected by the First Amendment."

State Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, one of the primary sponsors of the bill, said that she was disappointed by the ruling but "not disheartened."

Cohen was scheduled to meet today in Austin with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who said he plans to "vigorously appeal" the ruling.

Neither are some Dallas club owners ready to uncork the champagne.

"The rest of them are ready to throw a big party, but I don't think this is over," Dawn Rizos, who owns the upscale Dallas club Lodge, said. "They're going to rewrite it, and eventually it will pass."

The fee, which lawmakers passed last spring and which took effect January 1, was to be divided between sexual assault services and health insurance for the poor. No money had been collected yet, because the first payments from clubs were not due until April.

Officials with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, which helped craft the measure, said they intend to rework the bill when lawmakers return to Austin in January.

"This is not the end of the adult entertainment fee or of our goal of providing comprehensive sexual assault-related services to Texans," spokeswoman Karen Amacker said.

According to Jenkins, while the intended use of the money was "laudable," lawmakers had failed to directly tie the erotic activity they wanted to tax with the social ills they hoped to remedy, saying that no evidence had been submitted showing "that combining alcohol with nude erotic dancing causes dancers to be uninsured, or that any uninsured dancer could qualify for assistance from the fund."

Representatives from the Texas Entertainment Association, which filed the lawsuit and represents more than half of the topless clubs in the state, said they would also continue to fight any fee that was "unconstitutionally imposed" on them.

"I doubt they'll be able to overcome the First Amendment issue," Stewart Whitehead, the entertainment association's attorney, said.