Vegas faces growing pressure to legalize prostitution

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The idea of legalized prostitution within Las Vegas city limits, first floated years ago by Mayor Oscar Goodman, recently gained new life when State Sen. Bob Coffin said the idea was "worth entertaining," particularly in lieu of Nevada's crippling budget crisis.

Coffin's comments came on the heels of public entreaties by the Nevada Brothel Association to tax its industry, which generates untold millions each year. The industry first sought taxation in 1991 and again in 2003 but was rebuffed each time by lawmakers who worried that a tax would legitimize a business that law enforcement officials within the city have to prosecute as a sex-related crime.

The state's fiscal crisis is very real, as evidenced by the fact that the governor has proposed cuts of almost 40% in state spending across the board. But any time you find an industry asking government to tax it, you'd be wise to run fast in the other direction.

In fact, there is a growing fear among Las Vegas business people that legalizing prostitution would be one of the few ways that Las Vegas' reputation as an anything-goes playground of vice, greed and decadence could actually get worse. The fear is that it could drown the city in a tidal wave of ridicule from politicians, proselytizers and late-night talk-show hosts, not to mention self-styled moralists from one end of the country to the next.

But the pressure to legalize prostitution in the city is unlikely to subside anytime soon, because Nevada's brothel industry sees big dollar signs when it looks at the Las Vegas Strip. Earlier this month, Dennis Hof, owner of the BunnyRanch brothel outside of Carson City, Nev., expressed his support for opening locations in Las Vegas and Reno. Additional properties, he said, would help ease the crush of job applicants; BunnyRanch received 1,500 applications from women in December that had to be rejected due to lack of space.

While everyone agrees that diversifying Nevada's tax base would be a prudent thing to do, especially since the global economic crisis has drop-kicked the city's tourism-based economy. But legalizing prostitution is widely seen as the wrong way to go about it, a misguided economic stopgap that will neither speed Nevada out of the recession nor address the myriad social and legal issues surrounding the exchange of money for sex.

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