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Free Speech Lobbying Days Still Going Strong After Ten Years

Free Speech Lobbying Days Still Going Strong After Ten Years

Monday marked the tenth anniversary of the Free Speech Coalition's giant step toward mainstream acceptance, even if, incongruously, it seemed still to be fighting the same battle it joined in 1997.

A decade minus two months ago, the Free Speech Coalition brought together more than three dozen adult industry members and supporters to fight California Senate Bill 1013, introduced by Sen. Charles Calderon, which would have levied a 5% sales tax on all adult products sold in the state. At that time, Calderon claimed that "pornographic material, which is generally degrading to women and which often depicts rape, battery and other violent sexual fantasies, should be subject to a similar additional tax [to that of cigarettes and alcohol sales] to assist the victims of domestic violence and sexual crimes."

This year, FSC returned to Sacramento with slightly less than three dozen members and supporters to fight California Assembly Bill 1551, the "adult entertainment Venue Tax," introduced this time by Assemblymember Charles Calderon, which would levy a tax at an as-yet-undetermined rate on the retail sales of all adult material within the state, including the door fees for admission to adult cabarets, as well as an excise tax on the "storage, use, or other consumption in this state of tangible personal property purchased from any adult entertainment venue," based on the sale price of that material.

Yes, the senator who, ten years ago, was defeated in his run for state attorney general in part because of his failed attempt to impose an unconstitutional tax on adult speech in California has returned to the legislature, this time as a member of the  state assembly, and is trying to impose the same unconstitutional tax on the industry.

However, this time, the rationale for the tax is no longer the horrific depictions of sexual violence Calderon claimed were widespread in adult videos, but the claims that "Adult entertainment venues engender many types of criminal activities"; "Adult entertainment venues frequently cause adverse effects on local property values and on the public health, safety and welfare of citizens in their vicinity, and on the character of local neighborhoods"; and "The presence of adult entertainment venues often impacts the character of neighborhoods and curtails and prevents development of properties in its general vicinity." In other words, Calderon wants to tax adult businesses because the supposedly cause "secondary effects."

Never mind that the "secondary effects" emblazoned on the law by the Supreme Court's decision in Renton v. Playtime Theatres, based on the dozen or so "studies" prepared by municipalities in the late '70s and early '80s, have long since been disproved by rigorous scientific studies of adult businesses' presence in and impact on similar municipalities. Several of those studies have been carried out by Dr. Dan Linz and associates, though perhaps the best known such study was done at the direction of lawmakers in Fulton County, Georgia in 1997 – all of which showed that adult businesses have no more impact on local crime and property values than do local convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. Although these more accurate studies have been available for several years, Assm. Calderon was either unaware of them – at least until yesterday – or willfully chose to ignore them.

Moreover, the tax Calderon was proposing would have been used, after the projected massive administrative expenses had been taken care of, to alleviate the "secondary effects" allegedly caused by the adult businesses, but just how that "cure" would be accomplished was never made clear. For instance, if adult businesses were alleged to decrease the property values of neighboring businesses, how exactly would the tax revenues be used to cure that decrease? By giving the business owners some sort of yearly stipend, or a lump sum payment of some sort? The bill itself doesn't say, beyond the fact that an "Adult Entertainment Venue Impact Fund" would be established.

Another difference between the Free Speech lobbying days of a decade ago and yesterday's foray into the halls of California government is that the Coalition's professional lobbyists have spent that decade honing the training materials provided to its amateur lobbyists, so that training which once took two days to accomplish can now be handled in just a few hours.

At the helm this year were Free Speech Executive Director Diane Duke and FSC's new California lobbyist, Matt Gray, a former aide to Sen. John Vasconcellos. With his long experience among politicians, Gray provided insights into how the political machinery works in Sacramento, how politicians deal with input from the public and special interest groups, and also went over the text of the bills which the group would be discussing with their targeted senators and assembly members. In addition to members of the adult video community, this year's lobbyists included members of the Association of Club Executives (the lobbying group for adult cabarets), several club dancers, and one representative of Adult Sites Advocating Child Protection, which monitors reports of child pornography on the Web.

Besides Calderon's "sin tax" bill, the Coalition was also interested in Senate Bill 915, which would have created zoning ordinances for group homes for sexual offenders "as adult businesses" are zoned, thereby equating criminals who rape women and molest children with businesspersons who own and operate legal adult businesses. FSC opposes the implication that there is any connection between its members and sexual criminals, and seeks to have that language removed from the bill.

Early Monday morning, the Coalition held its usual news conference on the steps of the Capitol Building, and as usual, reporters and camera crews from several local media were present. Duke and Gray answered reporters' questions, as did FSC board chair Jeffrey Douglas ... but the reporters also showed great interest in one particular member of the lobbying group: Adult performer and former gubernatorial candidate Mary Carey, who gave several on-camera interviews.

The lobbying team was divided into six groups, each headed by a lobbying day "veteran," and each group was given a list of nine legislators and their staffs with whom the group had pre-arranged half-hour appointments. Usually, the meetings were with staffers, many of whom have worked in the capitol even longer than the legislators who employ them, and to whom the legislators often turn for information about what their constituents are saying ... or complaining about.

The group to which this author was assigned visited seven assembly member offices and two senate offices, and was well-received by all. The staffs are familiar with the Coalition's lobbying efforts and often look forward to being able to chat with workers in a business which is so different from the vast majority of constituents they see on a daily basis. They often asked probing questions about both FSC's positions on the bills under discussion, as well as what life was like in the adult industry ... and several noted that they were looking forward to FSC's Monday night get-together at a local restaurant, Chops, where staffers and FSC members would drink, eat hors d'oeuvres and chat together.

Most interesting was the fact that this time, unlike a decade earlier, Assm. Calderon was willing to meet with FSC representatives to discuss the groups concerns about the tax bill ... although that meeting was postponed twice during the day, and finally took place just as the evening get-together was winding down. Participants in the discussion said that Calderon was receptive to FSC's arguments against the bill, but that it was unclear whether or how the assembly member might modify the bill, or even whether he would consider withdrawing it.

It's worth noting, however, that ten years ago, the Calderon "sin tax" bill never even made it to a floor vote, having failed to receive any votes in the appropriations committee that would have sent it for consideration by the full senate.

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Mark Kernes

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