LINCOLN — A last-ditch effort to rein in bottle clubs that offer nude dancing was pulled back Wednesday in the State Legislature, a move that may signal the issue’s demise for 2018.

Before that happened, lawmakers debated the need to regulate private clubs where members can bring their own liquor, those as young as 18 can be admitted, and law enforcement cannot enter without a search warrant.

Some also raised concerns about the exploitation of female dancers who perform at “bottle clubs” operated by Shane Harrington, a controversial adult entertainment entrepreneur who has threatened to sue the Legislature if it passes restrictions on his businesses.

State Sen. Theresa Thibodeau of Omaha said she believes that allowing patrons to buy private dances in which they can touch a dancer’s breasts and buttocks — as Harrington has said is allowed at his clubs — meets the legal definition of prostitution. The senator has asked the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office to investigate.

She said her concerns aren’t only about Harrington, who has a strip club near 72nd and Dodge Streets in Omaha, but with a racy, members-only adult venue called R-Place in South Omaha. At R-Place, couples pay $40 a night and single males pay $45 a night to attend adult “house parties” and bring their own bottles of liquor.

“This business is a black eye to the City of Omaha and should be closed immediately,” said Thibodeau, reading an email she received about R-Place.

An operator of R-Place recently told The World-Herald that consenting adults have the right to have sex at parties held at the facility if they choose.

Harrington, in testimony at a legislative hearing in February, said his clubs had “zero” problems with sex trafficking and no problems with drunken patrons. Dancers, he said, get to decide if they want to totally disrobe, or not, or perform private dances. Touching “between the legs” is not allowed, Harrington said, describing his clubs as a safe, private place for adult entertainment.

But Wednesday, Thibodeau created a stir when she moved to amend her bill requiring bottle clubs to obtain state liquor licenses into another measure about sex trafficking. She said she suspected that some dancers at bottle clubs were being trafficked.

Other lawmakers, led by Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill, argued that liquor regulation was not germane to the sex trafficking bill and that Thibodeau’s amendment should be tossed out. Lt. Gov. Mike Foley, who was presiding over the debate, agreed. So did the speaker of the Legislature, Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, who said that while such regulation was needed, adding it to a bill with a much different topic violated the rules.

Thibodeau eventually withdrew her amendment, but not before joining Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha in criticizing Larson for “playing games” with the bottle club measure, Legislative Bill 747, and not giving it a fair chance to pass this year.

Larson, who heads the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee, refused to hold a vote on advancing LB 747 and instead insisted that it be merged into another committee bill. The senator also didn’t schedule a public hearing for LB 747 until the last possible day, which hurts a proposal’s chances of being debated and passed. Legislative rules say priority bills should be heard prior to other, unprioritized bills.

Thibodeau said Wednesday that she had not yet given up on getting her proposal adopted during the last few days of the 2018 session but was unsure if there were other bills to which it could be attached.

Harrington has sued more than one Nebraska community that attempted to regulate his strip clubs in the past.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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