PROVIDENCE — A former stripper in Ohio took her seat at a witness table at the State House yesterday to try to talk legislators out of slapping the adult entertainment industry with a new 25-percent tax on food, drinks and admission that, she warned, would shutter the industry and leave scores of women like her — at an earlier point in her life — unemployed.
“I danced to feed my children, earn an education, and strive for the same American dream of opportunity that we all share,” Angelina Spencer told the lawmakers.
Describing herself as a graduate of a Catholic college, she acknowledged her afterschool job was “unconventional” but “it certainly wasn’t my job working as a waitress at a truck stop, or pulling puppy papers for minimum wage at a dog kennel that enabled me to stand before you today. It was my career in adult entertainment which empowered me … to become an independent woman.”
“Yes, I am guilty of using adult entertainment as my stepping stone to a better life, rather than a tombstone,” she said.
Now the owner of a Washington, D.C., public relations firm, Spencer appeared before the House Finance Committee in her role as executive director of the National Association of Club Executives, which counts among its members 3,829 adult entertainment clubs across the United States, including about two dozen in Rhode Island.
She testified, alongside the head of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, against the 25-percent adult-entertainment tax bill proposed by Rep. Joseph Almeida, D-Providence, that House Finance Chairman Steven Costantino glanced at, blushed, and then said of the anatomically-explicit legislation: “There are parts [of this bill] I am afraid to read on television.”
But Spencer, in an interview, tried to dispel the notion that only “perverts and geeks” frequent the $15-billion national strip-club industry. “You know what? Look to the right, look to the left and look in the mirror,” she said, “because it’s not being supported by 15 guys in a raincoat, each spending $1 billion.”
Almeida yesterday said he had no idea how much the tax might raise, but his bill would earmark the lion’s share of the money to treatment services for convicted sexual offenders who were not in jail, and a smaller 15-percent chunk to the attorney general’s office to prosecute people who use the Internet to commit crimes against children.
In one of the lighter moments during the hearing, Costantino asked Almeida if he had a sense of how much, if anything, the clubs were charging now as admission fees and Almeida shot back: “Why are you asking me? What are you trying to say?”
On a more serious note, ACLU executive director Steven Brown warned the lawmakers that singling out one form of entertainment for a “special and onerous tax” would likely be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.
“Whatever one’s views on adult entertainment, it is entitled to protection under the First Amendment,” he said, and “it is worth keeping in mind that some people find other forms of entertainment just as offensive.”
His argument; “To impose a special tax on adult entertainment in order to fund programs for sex offenders is just as offensive to the Constitution as imposing a special tax on violent video games in order to fund nonviolence mediation programs, on rock concerts to fund deafness prevention programs or on [famously “Angry Comic”] Lewis Black appearances to fund anger management programs.”
In her own turn, Spencer, conservatively attired in black pantsuit and a double string of pearls, said she “empathize[s]” with “the plight all of you face as legislators during such difficult economic times.”
But she insisted a 25-percent tax on “amounts paid or charged” by the clubs would place “a serious burden on the people required to pay it,” whether it be the club owners or their patrons; clubs would close and that would hurt the “3,000 people directly working in adult entertainment and the approximately 1,500 attendant jobs served by this industry in the state of Rhode Island.”
“How?” she asked rhetorically, “When these business owners are unable to stay in business because they cannot pay the tax, all of these women will become victims at the hand of the state.”
Her comments about exotic dancing “empowering” women drew a rebuttal, however, from Rep. Elizabeth Dennigan, D-East Providence.
“As members of the Finance Committee,” Dennigan said, “I don’t believe we sit here as moral police.” But citing findings from a recent Brown graduate student study, she said: “Certainly…you have achieved incredible success, but most women working in this industry stated they would rather not be working in this industry. Their major concern was lack of respect from others in the industry, how they were treated and [that they] were not likely to disclose their employment to friends or family.”
In response, Spencer said a study by an anthropologist at the University of Maryland found one-third of the women in its study pool working to help put themselves through school. She also cited an industry-sponsored program that helped employees, but Dennigan described her arguments as “very good marketing and lobbying techniques to make sure this legislation doesn’t pass.”
The bill was held for further study. Almeida initially said, through a House spokesman, that he was asked to introduce the legislation through a lobbyist, then he said he did not recall the individual’s name and then he said he introduced the bill at the request of Dennigan who introduced a similar bill last year.