Ron Hart: New York tax gold found in glitter
Having chased many viable enterprises out of the United States with burdensome taxes and regulations, the tax-addicted state of New York went to court to collect tax on lap dances. The case boiled down to whether nude dancing in strip clubs is "art" and entitled to the same tax breaks as ballet performed in theaters.
I realize that the type of artistic offerings in these clubs is not the Bolshoi Ballet; then again, ballet patrons do not value "Swan Lake" so much that they stuff $5 bills into the ballerinas' tutus after the show.
Stripping is one of the few jobs in America that cannot yet be outsourced to another country, so politicians had to find out a way to muscle in on the action. Like New York crime families, government likes to dip its beak in all the vices. Politicians already control the numbers (lottery), booze (alcohol taxes), cigarettes (heavily taxed and then sued), etc. I think of government as the mafia without the moral authority or predictability.
Politicians have long grappled with how to get their cut from cash businesses. Traditionally, for every ten lap dances given, one grind and two bumps go to a state alderman — payment in kind, if you will. This government overreach is nothing new; it's right out of Bill Clinton's "I Have a Dream" speech of 1995.
Two of the last three New York governors flamed out for cavorting with women. They argued that these fast women needed to have a governor put on them to slow them down. It seems the only New York politician who is not involved in sex in any way is Hillary Clinton.
Stephen Dick, owner-operator of Nite Moves strip club on Route 9 in Albany, NY, brought the case on behalf of his "gentlemen's club." (I know for sure that patrons of a Route 9 stripper joint are nothing if not "gentlemen.") His friends say he is an aggressive guy and, in what they referred to as "just another Dick-ish move," he lawyered up and fought the tax "on artistic grounds and on a First Amendment basis." There is no question that if you start drawing the line you have no clear line to stop at.
I would have loved sitting in the courtroom gallery and hearing the oral arguments, but there was a two drink minimum.
Fortunately, politically appointed judges can discern the subtle differences between a Russian hooker and one from Kazakhstan. The reason these ex-Soviet breakoff republics are so good at sex is that sex was the only thing they did not have to wait in line for under Communism.
No judge was late to work that week.
The New York Supreme Court heard arguments from Assistant Solicitor General Robert Goldfarb, who argued the intricacies of lap dances before Justices Feinman, Kaplan, Silver and Schoenfeld. It probably sounded more like negotiations on J-Date than Supreme Court deliberations on a matter of import.
Appearing before the Court was an older sex worker. Having grown very comfortable around old men in robes, she wasn't the least bit nervous. The 76 year-old was brought in as an industry "expert witness" to testify to the artistic value of the lap dance, and then she performed one. Prudish judges who voted against the strip club's case will pay a price; just living with the vivid memory of that demonstration should be punishment enough.
In a five to four decision (arguably not a hung jury), the Court decided that club owner Dick had to pay back sales taxes on all the lap dances his girls did. I hope he shows up in court and dumps the $400,000 he owes at the judges' feet — in crumpled one dollar bills.
I suspect now we will see the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts franchised as a tax shelter to strip club owners throughout greater New York area.