With its gleaming Vegas Strip and stucco sprawl, Nevada has portrayed itself as a model of the civilized West. But every so often, such as Tuesday, holdovers from its boisterous beginnings show up at the Capitol -- and they are named Chicken Ranch, Pussycat Ranch and Shady Lady.
Here's Nevada's dirty little secret: Many lawmakers would like to keep the state's legal brothels a dirty little secret.
Never mind the Silver State's history of profiting off taboos or the potential cash a state tax on prostitution could bring. Each time legislators have considered such a tax, they've reacted with all the squeamishness of a teenager whose parents want to talk about the birds and the bees.
But with Nevada facing a budget gap as big as $3 billion and potentially huge cuts to education and social services, state Sen. Bob Coffin convened a hearing Tuesday in Carson City to discuss a state tax on prostitution. (Local governments already tax the bordellos.)
If only for an afternoon, legislators were forced to reconcile the Nevada of madams and gunslingers with the Nevada of multinational corporate giants.
"Can we be so proud as to refuse money that is offered from a legal business?" Coffin, a Democrat, asked at the hearing's outset.
Over the next few hours, brothel owners thanked lawmakers for even letting them in the building. They used the word "respectability." A lot. Three legal sex workers advocated for the proposal, while prostitution researcher Melissa Farley derided the whole thing as an "act of legislative pimping."
Through it all, some lawmakers lowered their eyes and squirmed. Democratic Sen. Terry Care made a point to tell the packed hearing room that his silence should not be construed as approval.
"I don't agree it's respectable, and I don't agree it's acceptable," he said. "It is legal."
The brothels, which are banned in the counties that include Reno and Las Vegas, are a mixed blessing for the state. Their mere existence helps Vegas sell itself as Sin City, and the HBO show "Cathouse," set at the Moonlite BunnyRanch, essentially advertises Nevada's illicit offerings. But when, for example, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) wanted to needle Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), he mistakenly claimed Reid supported a taxpayer-funded "red light express" train from the BunnyRanch to Disneyland.
The brothel owners' desire for respectability goes back years.
About a decade ago, said George Flint, the longtime Nevada Brothel Assn. lobbyist, the famed Mustang Ranch threw a steak and lobster party for legislators. Only three showed up.
Though many brothel owners have long supported being taxed -- Flint calls it "a wonderful life insurance policy" -- they could never wrangle the votes. It probably didn't help, Flint said, the year he joked that grateful brothels would mount photos of the then-governor on their walls.
"The Nevada Legislature is like an ostrich, and with this they want to stick their head in the sand," said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Coffin's proposal, Senate Bill 369, would require a $5 tax on a prostitute's services. The brothel association estimated that, even with business plummeting during the recession, bordellos get about 365,000 patrons a year. The bill would also establish a state ombudsman who would, in part, help steer sex workers to other professions.
The hearing ended without a vote, and the proposal will probably die in the Senate Taxation Committee unless legislators take action this week.
The plan has stirred up all sorts of scorn -- and some interesting logic.
Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons told the Las Vegas Review-Journal: "I'm not a supporter of legalizing prostitution in Nevada. So by taxing it, there's a recognition of the legality of it."
In the 1970s, Nevada allowed some counties to license brothels, in keeping with its tradition of embracing things, such as prizefighting and gambling, that others branded as sins.
But ever since the neon-signed bordellos were codified, folks have pressed to outlaw them. (In 2004, Churchill County voted for both President George W. Bush and keeping prostitution legal -- the latter by a 2-to-1 margin.)
On Tuesday, the hearing often veered into whether brothels were a legitimate enterprise. Flint said it was only the second time in 25 years that his clients had appeared before the Legislature.
"My client is a legal, respectable, licensed industry," he said, and others tried to convince the panel of the same.
Dennis Hof, owner of the BunnyRanch, said, "We're the world's oldest profession, and these are working professionals."
Deanne Salinger, who works at the BunnyRanch as "Air Force Amy," said, "If $5-a-person can raise $2 million a year, I'm all for it."
But Ken Green, who runs the Chicken Ranch, acknowledged that, despite the testimony, the brothel business wasn't quite like all the rest. He told the committee that should a prostitution tax be passed, he would prefer it show up on a credit card receipt with a more subtle name.