Perhaps the most widely ignored legal reality in Las Vegas (except for the open container law) are the laws against prostitution. From brothel prostitution to escorts, there is no form of legal prostitution in Clark County, which includes Vegas. The confusion is caused by the fact that Nevada is the only state in the nation with legal brothel prostitution, just not in Vegas. The closest legal brothel to Vegas is the Chicken Ranch, which is just minutes from the county line by car.
Whenever Vegas has hit an economic road bump in the last decade, the idea of legalizing prostitution has been floated as a solution, and then gone nowhere. There are a few reasons for this. The state Legislature would have to pass a law allowing prostitution in Clark County and that would severely hurt the tax base of the smaller counties that depend on the money that comes from brothels. The state of Nevada — despite the willingness, indeed, occasional eagerness of the brothel industry to be taxed — has been reluctant to craft any integral role for the brothels in the state tax base. The view was based not only on resisting the temptation for expansion but on a general belief that as the state left behind its Western libertarian roots, rural Nevada would eventually grow out of the need for brothel taxes as suburbs blossomed, replacing the empty ghost towns and desert nothing between Reno (where prostitution is illegal) and Vegas. Also, the casino industry (especially Steve Wynn) has in the past opposed any attempt to legalize prostitution in Vegas. Finally, no previous economic crisis Vegas has faced has lasted long enough to begin a dialogue about opening up Vegas to legalized prostitution. Once the crisis fades, interest vanishes.
Of course, the biggest sponsor for considering legalized prostitution in Vegas is Mayor Oscar Goodman. But because prostitution is an issue to be decided on the state level, his support for exploring the use of the oldest profession for downtown redevelopment has never received any serious attention.
Now, state Sen. Bob Coffin has given fresh life to this old idea by simply bringing it up as a serious proposal. According to the Sun, “This is the first time in recent memory that a legislator has taken up this issue.” Unsurprisingly, Coffin need not care about political fallout as he has reached his term limit for service and will not have to run again. Just as interesting, the article’s one clear opponent to expanding Nevada’s legalized prostitution system to Vegas is identified only as a “ranking Assembly Democrat.” What does it say about changing times and attitudes when the opponents of expanded legalized prostitution do not want their names in a story connected to that position? Obviously, behind this push for expanding legalized prostitution is Nevada’s budget mess. To give one example, the governor’s proposed budget may require cutting close to half of UNLV’s state funding. Therefore, no one is leaping to oppose ideas that can add money to help fix this mess.
So, here we are in 2009, and Nevada does not have enough money and everyone knows it. And everyone accepts that an awful lot of prostitution is going on unregulated and untaxed in Las Vegas. There are no new arguments about this issue, just changing times. And, unlike a recent proposal to lower the gambling age to 18, expanding legal prostitution does not seem as offensive to the general populace of Sin City, many of whom probably never knew it was illegal in the first place. After all, why should Nye County (where the Chicken Ranch is located) get the tax benefit from Vegas tourists?
Still, as much as downtown Las Vegas might support this idea, I doubt the casinos have changed their position. Resorts are opposed to most things that take their customers off the property to spend money. And without the support of the gambling industry, legalized prostitution in Las Vegas would be almost politically impossible.
But these are economic times like Vegas has never seen before. And I suspect this idea will get more attention than anyone imagines this go-around. The time to discuss legalized prostitution for Las Vegas has arrived.
I certainly have mixed views on whether this would be good for Vegas tourism, the community and the customers and workers who frequent this sort of entertainment. Many of my opinions were formed when I was working on a story and spent a week living at the Chicken Ranch and observing the business up close. And as this moves along, I will share those thoughts and memories with you.
But for now, I am curious about what you think. Would legal prostitution be another way to make Vegas a fantastic fantasy spot for you, or would it make Vegas a hopelessly seedy neighborhood stacked with many of the world’s most expensive and luxurious resorts? Would you be more or less likely to visit Vegas if there was legal prostitution available in some form?
These are questions getting a new look in 2009 as Vegas continues to lose residents and visitors, faces an unprecedented drop in gambling and remains the foreclosure capital of the country. Is it time to bring on the hookers to help save Las Vegas?
Under consideration: Tax brothels, consider legalizing prostitution in Las Vegas
Carson City — In these tough budgetary times, the chairman of a key state Senate committee is willing to consider the world’s oldest profession as a potential source of new tax revenue.
State Sen. Bob Coffin said Tuesday he would be willing to grant a hearing on proposals to legalize and regulate prostitution in Las Vegas and other urban areas of the state where it’s illegal.
The Las Vegas Democrat, who heads the Senate Taxation Committee, said he also wants to look at taxing the state’s legal brothels in rural counties.
Only “the most naive person on the planet would believe there’s no prostitution going on in the urban areas,” Coffin said. “It’s going on now unregulated and unsafe.
“I have not decided about whether or not I’d support the legalization and control of it in urban areas. But I think it’s an idea worth entertaining.”
Prostitution is legal in most of Nevada’s rural counties, but state law prohibits it in counties with populations in excess of 400,000. That means there are no legal brothels in Las Vegas or Reno.
Previous suggestions that Nevada consider legalizing prostitution throughout the state have gone nowhere. This is the first time in recent memory that a legislator has taken up this issue, but such a proposal would face long odds.
Coffin, who is serving his final term in the Senate because of term limits, said he will focus primarily on getting additional money from legal rural brothels, strip clubs and escort services.
“I’d be happy to listen to arguments for legalization anytime,” Coffin said. “In the meantime, I know we have to get some money from the world’s oldest profession.”
Nevada is the only state to legalize prostitution. But it has an uneasy relationship with the industry. Though rural counties sometimes collect large fees from the businesses, the state has resisted taxing brothels because of the stigma attached to prostitution.
Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who has floated the idea of legalizing prostitution as a way to redevelop downtown Las Vegas, said in an interview Wednesday that he thinks there should be an open debate on legalizing it in Nevada’s cities.
Goodman said he recently met with a legislator, whom he declined to name, and “people in the industry” to discuss legalizing prostitution in Las Vegas.
“I’ve always said there should be a serious discussion,” Goodman said. “People assume it’s legal anyhow.”
The mayor said legalizing it would provide a good source of revenue for education and social services, would create a safer environment for all parties involved and reduce sexually transmitted diseases.
“Smart people can have serious discussions without fear of reprisal,” Goodman said. “Right now, there’s no benefit coming out of it for anybody and it’s rampant.”
Asked if he would initiate the conversations, Goodman said no. “But I’ll certainly join into the discussion.”
Coffin said he would consider the idea not only because of the state’s dire financial situation, but also to make the industry safer.
Las Vegas’ red-light district was shut down in the 1940s, when the Army, which operated the military base that would become Nellis Air Force Base, demanded the city close its brothels.
City leaders did and were satisfied when the servicemen spent money in casinos, according to the book “Las Vegas: A Centennial History.”
In 2004, Goodman suggested building a “little Amsterdam” red-light district downtown, but the resulting furor seemed to stall the idea.
County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, then a member of the Assembly, said the idea was worth a debate. Casino executives opposed it.
Any change in the law would require the approval of the Legislature, which is unlikely.
As one ranking Assembly Democrat said Wednesday: “There’s no chance in hell this passes.”
Correction: The original headline on this story about legalizing prostitution mischaracterized state Sen. Bob Coffin’s stance. As chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee, Coffin said he was willing to grant a hearing on proposals to legalize prostitution in the state’s urban areas, not that he supported doing so.