Topeka — In an ongoing campaign against stores selling explicit DVDs, sex toys, reading material and novelties, Phillip Cosby is advocating a new tactic - imposing a special state tax on such businesses.
If the state taxes tobacco and alcohol to raise money to offset the health and societal damage they do, why not impose a similar sin tax on pornography? That's the reasoning of Cosby, a 54-year-old Abilene porn opponent.
The idea isn't as far-fetched as it seems. Utah imposed such a tax in 2004, and legislators in several states, including Missouri, have considered the idea.
And with Kansas legislators pressed next year to find more money for public schools and to prevent a budget shortfall, the idea intrigues some of them.
"All I know is that I've always heard that if you subsidize something, you get more of it, and if you tax it, you get less of it," said House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka. "It'd be nice to have less porn."
Mays and other legislative leaders are scheduled to meet today to determine what issues lawmakers will study this summer and fall, in preparation for their 2006 session, which convenes Jan. 9.
Cosby's idea is on their agenda, endorsed by the House member who represents Abilene.
"Here we've got a court-upheld business that changed the community for the worse, and they're escaping a sin tax," Cosby said. "This is just another tool."
Cosby hasn't worked out any details yet - how a sexually oriented business would be defined, the amount of the tax or how it would be enforced.
Rep. Shari Weber, R-Herington, whose district includes Abilene, said the idea has merit, especially because legislators will be looking for revenues. But she added, "This probably raises eyebrows."
For two years, since the Lion's Den opened along Interstate 70 at Abilene, Cosby's goal has been to run sexually oriented businesses out of business.
Near the store is a billboard that Cosby and others put up proclaiming: "Jesus Heals and Restores. Pornography Destroys."
He and church groups attempted unsuccessfully to get a grand jury to indict two Salina stores, Behind Closed Doors and Priscilla's.
In Dickinson County, the Abilene store faces 10 misdemeanor charges of promoting obscenity, and a Sept. 9 trial is scheduled.
Last year, Dickinson County commissioners enacted an ordinance requiring the stores' owners and employees to obtain annual licenses, at a cost of $500 for each owner and $50 for each employee. The ordinance also requires such a business to remain 1,500 feet from an interstate and mandates that it close by 10 p.m. The store is challenging the ordinance in federal court.
Meanwhile, Cosby plans to meet Wednesday with ministers in Topeka in hopes of getting a local campaign going.
And in Lawrence, sexually oriented businesses have until July 31 to be located on a state highway. The owner of one store, Naughty but Nice, has promised to fight efforts by the city to force his business to move from its location south of downtown.
Cosby said such businesses create social problems, including crime, blight and decreased property values.
"If those things are going to impact the community, then let's hit them in the pocketbook," he said.
Locally and nationwide, owners of sexually oriented bookstores, novelty shops, strip clubs and escort services dispute the idea that their businesses have "secondary" effects. Mike Zrubek, owner of Behind Closed Doors, said his store generates sales tax and property tax revenues for his community.
Zrubek also said Cosby's campaign has helped business - giving Behind Closed Doors what amounts to free advertising. He said he hopes within the next year to move and expand his business.
"It's not bugging me one bit," he said. "There's always going to be someone who doesn't like what you're doing."
Though Zrubek doubts legislators would pass a porn tax, he worries that a levy could hurt his business.
Similar concerns led six strip clubs and one escort service in Utah to go to court to block its year-old law, which imposes a 10 percent tax on admission fees, sales, food and drinks at a sexually oriented business. That case is pending.
Their attorney, Andrew McCullough, said he's heard from colleagues in Iowa, Texas and Washington about similar tax proposals.
The Oklahoma House approved a similar tax this year, but the bill had little support in the Senate. In Missouri, a state senator proposed a 20 percent tax and a $5 per-person admission charge. But his idea was dropped and legislation later was enacted to ban nude dancing and mandate that dancers stay at least 10 feet away from customers.
"It'll spread like wildfire if I don't kill it here in Utah, and I intend to kill it here in Utah," McCullough said.