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Richer for our sins

Sin deserves a little more respect. Before anyone gets too upset, I'm talking about legal sin: smoking, drinking, gambling and, in Nevada, prostitution.

If it weren't for that kind of sin, we'd all be a little poorer. That's because statehouses across America are casting a greedy eye on our guilty pleasures to help them balance their budgets. Not much else is left to tax. Republicans have put the wealthy off limits, and Democrats the poor. So we are down to . . . sinners!

Smokers will suffer. New Jersey added another 55-cent tax to a pack of cigarettes _ for a total of $2.05 _ the highest of any state. Even Marlboro Country is getting in on the act. Wyoming used to have the lowest cigarette levy of any state that doesn't produce tobacco, but no longer. The state recently increased its tax five-fold.

It's enough to make a smoker drink, but that's getting more expensive, too. At least five states have increased alcohol taxes this year. Nebraska is trying to take all of the fun out of a visit to the neighborhood bar. The state raised its tax on liquor, beer and wine by 25 percent and made its temporary cigarette tax permanent.

New Jersey is going to make a gambler's trip to Atlantic City even more painful. Under a recently adopted state budget, casinos will be taxed on the rooms, meals and show tickets they comp high rollers. In addition, the makers of slot machines will pay more taxes and the people who play the slots will pay more for parking and a room.

Yet all of those sinners should feel lucky compared with Nevada's prostitutes. To help make up for a budget deficit of up to $1-billion, some Nevada lawmakers have talked about slapping a 10-percent "live entertainment" tax on concerts, strip bars and brothels, which are legal in 10 of the state's 17 counties.

Half of a prostitute's earnings already go to the brothel owner, and with what's left they pay a local license fee, room and board and income tax. "We've done the breakdown and we are already having sex for 19 to 21 cents on the dollar," said Destyny, a prostitute at Bella's Hacienda Ranch. "We've come here to put money in our pockets, not everyone else's."

Politicians justify their "sin taxes" with a perverse logic. They're not just raising taxes, they say, they're keeping the rest of us from overindulging our vices. If that really happened, of course, then tax revenues would fall, and they don't want that.

On this point, prostitutes are a lot more honest than politicians.

+ Jack Reed is an editorial writer for the Times. +

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