January 24, 2017
A legislator proposing a plan to bolster funding for Pennsylvania’s domestic violence and rape crisis centers should be lauded for having a noble goal.
But when a prospective bill would appear to suggest that money should come from strip club patrons because the establishments are “frequently the nexus of criminal activity and disorderly conduct in an otherwise quiet and law-abiding community,” that legislator should be challenged.
When that dichotomy presents itself, the only way to better understand someone’s intentions is talking to them directly instead of ranting in the dark.
Meet state Rep. Thomas P. Murt, a Republican who has represented portions of Montgomery County (including his hometown of Hatboro and Willow Grove) and a sliver of Philadelphia (Bustleton) since 2007.
An Archbishop Wood High School grad, he has the resume befitting someone who – in my estimation – belongs in elected office. He’s educated (bachelor’s in economics from Penn State; master’s in education from La Salle), has served his country (a U.S. Army reservist, he served 14 months with the 4th Infantry division in Iraq) and cares about, among other things, clean drinking-water standards.
Murt’s name has been in the news lately thanks to something called the “Sexually Oriented Business Revenue Act,” a measure that he and fellow representative Thomas R. Caltagirone, a Reading Democrat, intend to reintroduce for consideration in the state legislature.
(It was initially broached last year but lingered in a Harrisburg committee. Former state Rep. Mark Cohen told me he backed off supporting it as a co-sponsor because the industry mobilized and had him rethink his stance that "many of the businesses exploited their female workers.")
“Our goal is to help victims. There's nowhere else they can go." – state Rep. Thomas P. Murt, on a bill that would tax strip club patrons
Their 149-word memo explaining the need for such legislation includes this: “Strip clubs and similar ‘adult entertainment’ businesses have a profound negative and disruptive effect on local communities.”
If passed, “the bill will impose a $5 entrance fee on each customer of a sexually oriented business” which would then be forwarded to an existing state Department of Human Services grant program.
Before I spoke with Murt on Tuesday afternoon, I was wholeheartedly against the bill.
Despite worthy intentions, this shouldn’t be passed, I thought. It’s different than, say, paying more for soda to help fund the city’s pre-K program.
Battling 'Big Soda' for the greater good is one thing. Toying with – in the words of attorney George Bochetto, who’s represented adult-entertainment establishments – a "very serious First Amendment issue (perceived as) punitive as to this expression of art" is something altogether different.
My reasons to oppose – beyond Bochetto’s valid points – were manifold.
From a business standpoint, the impact would be simple.
If such establishments don’t hike cover charges by a Lincoln – and do away with no-cover specials tied to, say, heading to the Cheerleaders establishment after an Eagles game with proof of Linc attendance – it’d have to cover this fee itself or raise other prices to mitigate the fiscal damage.
But it's not just about the impact on the owners of such businesses.
Should such a hike bring about a decrease in customers, the impact would harm employees’ bottom lines. When you consider that many employees in the industry are working second jobs to help provide for family and get an education, that’s a big deal.
(Here’s some full disclosure: I’ve gone to such clubs in the past, though not recently. I’ve talked to their employees. And amid those discussions, I rarely believed I was being deceived by an employee hoping to bleed singles from me out of pity. What can I say: An interviewer by trade doesn’t lose those sensibilities.)
I had all that in mind when I spoke with Murt on Tuesday afternoon.
I mentioned that I interpreted the memo (and subsequent statements) as meaning his desire to avoid raising taxes was mitigated with a broad-brush argument that adult-entertainment facilities degrade society (which they don't, as many are good neighbors in their communities).
Not so, he said.
“All we’re trying to do is find a mode of raising money for rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters. Someone suggested this might be a good way of doing it,” he said. “Our goal is to help victims.”
He noted a shortage of crisis beds for women “trying to escape” dangerous homes across the commonwealth – and Philadelphia, in particular – makes increased funding all the more important. There aren't exactly a lot of funding options out there, he noted.
“There’s nowhere else they can go,” he said of those victims, noting he’s had support from those worried about Health and Human Services concerns and the underfunding of rape crisis centers. He's also gotten some negative feedback from others threatening to take their dollars to strip clubs outside of Pennsylvania.
I then asked about the lack of data tying adult-entertainment businesses to domestic violence, meaning such a fee would single out a niche industry for no telling reason.
“We’re not trying to crush any business with this tax, the soda tax or any other tax. I’d say that with the soda tax, what’s the tie between soda and education?” he said. “We’re concerned about the impact of every tax on every business. That’s certainly a concern that every elected official should have.”
He noted that though the proposal is for a $5 fee, “we’re flexible” to the point of lowering it to $1 or $2 on certain days of the week.
"We want to be reasonable with this,” he added.
Funding for state-sponsored programs will always be an issue, maybe now more than ever.
In lieu of any other proposals, we need to do what we can to help others in need. Short of any other proposals coming along to help programs to support victims of domestic abuse and rape, which receive $27.3 million in annual state funding, collectively, this is the only viable approach on the table.
Besides, it'd be hypocritical at best to support the soda tax while complaining about an effort to fund the programs Murt wants to help. That's why I choose supporting over complaining, for now.
I just wish they'd made their intentions a little more clear in the memo.