Saturday, June 28, 2003

Charlie LeDuff
National Desk

Nevada turns to brothels as a budget fix

CARSON CITY, Nev., June 27 — Dennis Hof is known around the state of Nevada as "America's pimp," an honorific he holds to be a statement of fact, and he works hard to maintain his title.

In addition to being a syndicated radio and cable television personality, Mr. Hof, 56, is the proprietor of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, Nevada's oldest modern brothel, tucked behind an industrial park on the outskirts of this state capital.

So renowned is his establishment, opened in 1955, that Mr. Hof says he is considering a run for president of the United States.

Mr. Hof employs a rotating stable of 1,000 women, all registered with the authorities as mandated by law, and business could not be better in the world's oldest profession. "We like to say we provide men with fantasies they can't get at home," he said. "Just leave the wife and kids at the casino and spend the afternoon with us. Everybody wins."

But the balloon of good fortune that Mr. Hof and his employees have enjoyed may soon deflate. Nevada is drowning in red ink, and legislators face a constitutional deadline to balance the books by July 1.

Lawmakers are finding it difficult to come to a compromise on spending cuts and new taxes. But one of the few things they have agreed on is that sex sells, and it should be taxed to help pay for children's education.

Carved from the gold rush days, the Nevada territory has always had a libertarian leaning. Gambling, drive-through weddings, quickie divorces and sex for hire are good. Taxes and government are bad.

In fact, the state's Constitution prohibits a state income tax. Moreover there is no business tax, no payroll tax, no banking tax. There is a sales tax, and the state gets a percentage of casino revenue. But with tourism down and Indian casinos siphoning off the gambling business, Nevada, the Silver State, has a deficit projected to be $860 million to $1 billion over the next two years, depending on whose numbers you believe.

Today, legislators were bickering over an array of tax possibilities. But they have agreed in principle on a live-entertainment tax of 10 percent, which would apply to live concerts, strip bars and brothels. The estimated 3,000 escorts who work in the state, most in Las Vegas, will now pay a franchise tax.

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, a Democrat, came up with the idea to include brothels in the entertainment tax.

"Some say prostitution is not entertainment but a social service," Ms. Leslie said. "You can laugh about it, but prostitution is a legal business in this state, and we need to look at it as a source of revenue."

But even supporters of the tax point to a downside: the tax would give legitimacy to the state's 28 or so brothels. Currently they are legal in 10 of the state's 17 counties. It is estimated that the tax would raise up to $5 million from brothels.

William J. Raggio, the Senate majority leader, burned down a brothel by court order when he was a district attorney. Today he is philosophic about the sex levy. "It's a unique business," Mr. Raggio said. "They sell it, you get it and they still own it. Still, we're going to tax it."

It is not so much the money as the inhumanity of the gesture that makes a working girl boil. It seems that prostitutes don't appreciate being objectified.

"We provide a service, not a commodity," said a 37-year-old who calls herself Air Force Amy and works at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. She began her career 13 years ago after drinking a couple of wine coolers, and the rest is history, she giggled. She earns $10,000 to $50,000 a month, and argues that she already pays federal income tax. A state tax on the establishment would be passed on to her, she said, in effect taxing her income. That, she said, is unconstitutional.

"They should stop picking on an easy target and go after the drug dealers and panderers and the big companies," she said in an indignant lawyerly tone.

On being buzzed into Mr. Hof's establishment, a visitor was greeted by a chorus line of "independent contractors" clad in lingerie and pumps.

Mr. Hof sat at the back bar drinking fruit juice, and the first sentence he uttered was something about his beloved cathouse and the love of his girls.

He is a large, burly man with steel blue eyes, thin swept hair and a tan so deep he blends into the red lighting.

He insisted he already pays around $500,000 a year to Lyon County, the site of the Bunny Ranch. If the state demands a 10 percent cut, he will go broke, he said.

The house takes half the women's earnings.

"It's not right to balance the budget on the backs of girls," he said. "It's un-American."

A former real estate broker, he describes himself not as an exploiter but a man who has done much good — who gave soldiers free services when they returned home from Iraq, who makes dreams come true, who is responsible for keeping 1,000 women off the streets, who makes sure they have doctors and a clean work environment.

"We've never had a case of disease here," he said and then threw out a statistic that 100 prostitutes were killed on the streets of America last year.

"Why would they destroy something that works?" he asked.

And then he worked out the math. "I'll just have to start charging rent, and ultimately this will come out of the pockets of the girls."

CAPTIONS: Photos: A 37-year-old who calls herself Air Force Amy in a suite at the Bunny Ranch in Lyon County on the outskirts of Carson City. Below, the entrance to the brothel, officially the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. Nevada legislators have agreed in principle to tax various forms of entertainment, including brothels.

(Photographs by Marilyn Newton for The New York Times)

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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Created: January 14, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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