Bowling for Dollars

Bowling alley owners hope to be spared from what they call an unfair tax.

For years, bowling alley owners fought the state Department of Revenue over collecting sales taxes on shoe rentals, only to end up throwing a gutter ball. To them, the tax is as unjust and infuriating as a one-ten split. Now, for a second time, they're looking to the Missouri Legislature to remedy the situation. This time it's Dwight Scharnhorst, a Republican state representative from Valley Park, who has come to their rescue by filing House Bill 1548. If the measure becomes law, bowling alley owners would get a sales tax exemption on any equipment — including shoes.

Though Scharnhorst's district does include the Brunswick Zone Lakeside, he says the tax is plainly unfair and that politics has nothing to do with his decision to submit the legislation. "I'm a small businessman myself," says Scharnhorst, a professional photographer by trade. Scharnhorst first took up the cause midway through the 2007 session, after Representative Ron Richard, a Republican from Joplin (and a professional bowler in the 1970s and 1980s), withdrew a similar bill he pre-filed in 2006. Richard's family owns bowling alleys in Missouri and Arkansas, and Joplin-based political blogger Randy Turner took him to task for what he called self-serving legislation.

But Richard, who is expected to become house speaker in 2009, was not the first lane owner to take on double taxation. In seeking to recoup nearly $23,890 in sales taxes on shoe rentals, Richmond Heights' Tropicana Lanes took it as far as the state Supreme Court. In a 2003 decision the court sided with the tax collectors by a 4-to-3 vote.

"It was a kind of an out-of-left-field decision for everybody," says Ray McCarty, the Jefferson City lobbyist hired by the Missouri Bowling Proprietors Association. Tropicana expected the court to treat its business the same way it treats a country club, which, for example, pays a sales tax when it buys its golf carts, but doesn't have to pay it again when it rents out those carts. And, McCarty notes, two years after going against the bowling alleys, the Supreme Court ruled that Six Flags in Eureka should get a refund of sales taxes collected on inner tube rentals at its wave pool.

Under the bill Scharnhorst filed, the question of double taxation would become moot because bowling alleys wouldn't pay a sales tax in the first place when they buy new lane beds, pins, balls or shoes. According to the estimate McCarty worked up, alley owners spend $7.1 million a year on equipment and maintenance and would be eligible for a collective tax savings of nearly $480,000.

 
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