Texas Strip Clubs Sue Over State-Imposed Cover Charge

AUSTIN — Texas gentleman’s club owners are attempting to block a new state-imposed $5 cover charge that is slated to go into effect Jan. 1, reportedly raising an estimated $40 million annually.

The cover charge is intended by officials to offset rising health care expenses for uninsured residents, regardless of their citizenship status, and to finance sexual assault prevention programs.

Club owners have filed a suit claiming that the surcharge violates their constitutionally protected free speech rights, creates the impression that their patrons are prone to rape and thus are required to fund programs that address the crime and that this is nothing more than a discriminatory tax meant to hurt their businesses.

The bill's backers claim that they are merely trying to raise money for under-funded programs and not trying to imply that consumers of adult entertainment commit sex crimes, and that they are not trying to hurt legitimate business operations.

"Clearly we're disappointed by the lawsuit; we were really hoping this industry would see this as an opportunity to do something positive for the communities they're in," said Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. "We're going to fight it because we believe in the merits of our position."

The club owners' suit, filed against Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Comptroller Susan Combs, states in part: “Exotic nude dancing is protected speech under the 1st Amendment," and claims that the surcharge "singles out income derived from protected speech for a burden the state places on no other income."

Gov. Rick Perry backed similar legislation in 2004, when a surcharge on clubs was sought to raise money for the state’s school system but was defeated in session.