Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009 | 2 a.m.
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.