Fort Worth Senator Wendy Davis Wants to Use Strip Club Tax to Pay for Untested Rape Kits

Fort Worth Senator Wendy Davis announced this week that she'll be teaming up with the Texas Department of Public Safety to remind state law enforcement agencies, once again, that a new law requires them to report how many untested rape kits they have in evidence. At the same time, she announced the creation of a new, confidential legal hotline for sexual assault victims.

But it's the rape kit backlog -- and her novel approach to getting the funds to finally test them -- that's drawing the most attention.

As we've mentioned before, many counties, Dallas among them , have thousands of untested rape kits gathering dust in evidence. That's despite SB 1636, the law Senator Davis authored last session that requires them to report the total number of untested kits they have.

It seems that some agencies aren't reporting their numbers because they think that they'll then be required to actually test those kits, something they say they don't have the money to do. Davis says that's not so, and that the law is only meant to give the state "a clear picture of the backlog."

"You would think the police agencies would be the first among us to want to comply with the law," Tony Spangler, Davis' spokesman, told us. "Senator Davis thinks that clarifying what the intent of the law is will help alleviate the problem."

Davis would like to see those untested kits paid for using the proceeds from Texas' much-argued-about,recently upheld "pole tax," the one that collects an extra $5 from strip club patrons. She estimates it could cover around $4 million of the cost.

But strip club owners have long argued that it's unfair to ask them to pay for care for sexual assault victims, survivors of domestic violence or uninsured people -- all things that the money's been earmarked for at various times. In their argument before the Texas Supreme Court last year, they said the tax amounted to an infringement on their First Amendment free speech rights.

Dawn Rizos of the Lodge has been a vocal opponent of the tax; as she sees it, it implies that strip clubs are somehow responsible for sexual assault. "They're saying we exploit women somehow," she told us last year, during the last bout of fighting over the tax. Nonetheless, she said, the Lodge had paid some $600,000 towards the tax since 2008.

In upholding the law, Judge Nathan Hecht disagreed that the tax infringes on the club's free speech rights. In his opinion, he called the tax a restriction on "combining nude dancing...with the aggravating influence of alcohol consumption." Theoretically, strip clubs that don't serve alcohol (many of them) don't have to pay the tax.

And although Davis seems confident the money will be there when it's needed, and despite the stern talk from the judge, the state may not actually be working very hard to collect the tax -- and clubs, for obvious reasons, aren't leaping to pay it. That's according to Mike Precker, who was the Lodge's manager until fairly recently.

"Far as I know, the comptroller hasn't shown up at anybody's door demanding payment," he told us. "They're probably too busy hounding Planned Parenthood."

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan