SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – With the Illinois budget in crisis, legislators are looking at an unexpected source of money to reverse cuts in sexual assault services — strip clubs. The idea is to impose a tax of $5 for every customer and then put the money in a special fund devoted to preventing sexual violence and counseling its victims.
Supporters say strip clubs contribute to crime and violence, so it makes sense for them to help pay for fighting the problems.
The proposal was unanimously approved by a Senate committee and now awaits a floor vote. But the legislation raises a number of questions, among them: Do strip clubs contribute to crime, particularly violence against women?
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Toi Hutchinson, is careful not to go too far in linking the clubs and violence. "Never have I said strip clubs cause rape," said Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields.
What she says — and studies seem to support this — is that there's a correlation between strip clubs, alcohol and violence against women. Studies have found a variety of negative consequences to having sexually oriented businesses in a community, including prostitution, sexual assault and exploitation, drug use and even litter.
Texas has a strip club tax along the lines of what's being considered in Illinois. A 2009 report on the issue there had this to say: "Are sexually oriented businesses, alcohol, and the victimization and perpetration of sexual violence against women connected? An exhaustive review of the literature says yes."
A 2003 study of Greensboro, N.C., found calls to 911 were up to three times higher in neighborhoods with strip clubs than in neighborhoods without them. The increases involved reports of violence, drugs, property crimes and more.
These studies have been cited in numerous court decisions upholding laws regulating strip clubs here and across the country. Governments can impose regulations and taxes on adult businesses just as they can on other legal industries with negative effects, like gambling and tobacco.
But not every study reaches the same conclusion, and some people argue against blaming strip clubs for general increases in crime.
"We could debate all day what study is valid and what study isn't," said Michael Ocello, who owns five strip clubs in southern Illinois that would be subject to the new tax.
And in Centerville, which has three such clubs, Police Chief Steven L. Brown said he opposes the tax and hasn't had a report of sexual assault directly involving the clubs in his 20 years there.
How much money would such a tax generate?
The tax would apply to any club with nude dancers and which sells alcohol or lets customers bring their own. Backers of the tax aren't sure exactly how many Illinois strip clubs would be subject to the tax, but they believe it's somewhere between 50 and 70.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, an advocate of the tax, came up with a revenue estimate of $6 million to $12 million a year. Assuming 60 clubs paying the tax, each club would need around 110 customers a day to generate the kind of money Simon and others predict.
Because the businesses pay taxes already, it wouldn't cost the state much to collect an additional tax, said Susan Hofer, spokeswoman for the state Department of Revenue.
It would be the clubs' responsibility to keep records of how many customers they admit and pay the $5 tax per customer, or collect the tax as a cover charge, she said. The state could investigate particular clubs if there was some reason to believe they weren't paying the full tax.
Clubs could avoid the new tax by having dancers wear bikinis or by giving up their liquor license and prohibiting bring-your-own policies. Critics point out that ending alcohol sales would reduce other government tax dollars.
Ocello said the larger clubs might survive, but paying the tax or giving up alcohol sales would put his clubs out of business.
Where would the money go?
Money from the proposed tax would be used exclusively for sexual assault counseling and prevention, which could include everything from awareness programs to special training for police.
Illinois has 33 rape crisis centers, and they've lost one-quarter of their state funding over the last four years. They're getting $4.6 million this year, down from $5.8 million in 2009.
Polly Poskin, executive director of Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said $5 tax would more than replace the lost funding and perhaps allow expansion into cities and counties where women don't have such services available. ICASA assisted over 18,000 survivors of sexual assault, abuse and harassment in 2011.
Poskin said some rape victims don't seek counseling until five or ten years later. Although many rapes go unreported, over 5,000 criminal sexual assaults were reported to state police in 2009, the most recent year that data is available.
Hutchinson said she is sponsoring the tax legislation because those women need help that the state is cutting.
"I was really worried about the ability to fund these really critical services," Hutchinson said.