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Texas Entertainment Association

New frontiers in strip club tax collections

A new-ish development in a decade-long battle.

Glenn Hegar

Dozens of “bikini bars” from Houston to San Antonio are suing the state after the Texas Comptroller accused them of skirting the so-called pole tax on nude entertainment and slapped them with seven-figure fees, according to the lawsuits.

The fight focuses on the state definition of nude, which includes any part of the buttocks or a woman’s breast below the top of the areola.

And in federal court, the clubs are questioning why they are taxed for bikini-clad performers, but not concert halls or sports venues that host cheerleaders and musicians wearing thongs or cleavage-baring tops.

“If they aren’t doing it to them, they shouldn’t be able to do it to a topless club or a bikini bar,” said attorney Casey Wallace, who is representing the Texas Entertainment Association, which brought the federal lawsuit in 2017.

The Comptroller’s office said it follows the law and determines which clubs should be taxed by looking at their social media posts and marketing. The office also sends inspectors inside to see what dancers are wearing.

“The agency is just trying to apply this in a common sense way,” said Ray Langenberg, Special Counsel for Tax Litigation for the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. “If they are called topless clubs, the claim they are not wears a little thin.”

The fees are being contested in a state appeals process by 34 clubs across Texas, including a dozen in the Houston area. At least 27 more clubs have filed lawsuits, including 14 clubs based in Houston, according to the Comptroller’s Office.

The lawsuits referenced in this story were filed last year; I’m not really sure why this is a story now, though perhaps there’s a court date about to happen. Be that as it may, it was back in 2014 that the State Supreme Court upheld the $5-per-customer fee, for which the original bill was passed in 2007. I’m not qualified to parse the legalities of what constitutes “nudity” in this context, but I do think that trying to apply it retroactively for a decade’s worth of collections is excessive. I mean, when the state reached a deal with Amazon in 2012 to start collecting sales taxes, part of the deal was that the state would quit trying to collect back taxes. Why does Amazon deserve a better deal than bikini bars? Assuming that the Comptroller is properly interpreting the law in the first place, which is not a sure thing, surely there would be room for a compromise.