For several days, the announcements blared over the public address system of the Fair Lanes bowling alley in College Park, urging weekend bowlers to help fight a proposed new tax on their favorite pastime.
All week long the office and home telephones of the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee's 24 members were constantly busy as bowlers from across the state begged the lawmakers to kill a bill that would permit local governments to tax their sport the same way tennis, golf, bingo and baseball tickets are taxed.
And today, bowlers, bowling lane managers and bowling company executives descended on the committee hearing room 250 strong, arguing that the proposed tax -- which would take as much as $4.4 million out of their pockets and put it in the coffers of local governments -- was antifamily, antielderly, antiyouth, antiwomen, antienergy conservation and downright un-American.
"Bowlers come from all walks of life," said Walter Hall, the executive vice president of Fair Lanes Inc., which operates 35 percent of the 121 bowling alleys in Maryland. "They have fun bowling and they play together. It makes a better world for all of us."
According to a report compiled by Stewart Bainum Jr., a Montgomery County delegate who is the bill's chief sponsor, Fair Lanes would have to pay an estimated $1.5 million in taxes next year if his measure was enacted and local governments put the expansion of the amusement tax into effect.
Bainum's efforts to tax the bowlers, however, have put him into a direct confrontation with the practitioners of America's most popular participatory sport and with an avid and fiercely protective lobbying force which can -- and -- does -- produce hundreds of phone calls, letters, and bodies to fight whenever its interests are threatened.
Word of the tax bill first slipped out late last week, but it took the bowling lobby only a day or so to get organized, print leaflets distributed at alleys around the state, give out the home telephone numbers of key delegates, and go to war.
Lorraine Sheehan, a Democrat from Prince George's County, was home nursing a flu when the calls started coming in over the weekend. "They were saying 'Eliminate the police department,' or 'Put higher taxes on liquor,' but don't tax us," she recalled.
"They told me the Fair Lanes manager was giving them my home number, so I finally called him" and asked him to give out only her office number, the beleagured delegate said. "I don't imagine any of us are going to withstand this pressure."
The pressure on the delegates from Prince George's has been particularly intense since, in many of the homes of Lanham, Bowie and New Carrollton bowling balls are part of the furniture and the games of duckpins and ten-pins at the county's 17 bowling centers are part of the rhythm of everyday life.
Prince George's would generate more revenue than the same tax anywhere else in the state -- nearly $1 million in 1981, if the full 10 percent amusement tax were imposed on bowling games.
One Prince George's Democrat, William R. McCaffrey, was called over the weekend by a woman who, after initial pleasantries, said, "I need your help on bowling."
"I'm busy all next week," responded McCaffrey, a sometime bowler who fills in on local league games from time to time.
"No, No, I need your vote against this bill," the woman responded.
And when Del. Gerard Devlin left his law office near the Free State Mall in Bowie on Monday, bowler after bowler -- some just leaving from games at a nearby alley -- approached him urging him to oppose the bill.
"The word's out and they're very disturbed," said the Prince George's Democrat.
Devlin's colleague, Anthony Cicoria, joked Monday night that he might be able to avoid the issue by "taking Rule 19" -- legislative jargon for delegates who decline to cast a vote because they have an interest in the pending legislation. Cicoria sells bowling trophies.
The fervent lobbying by the state's bowling interests has, several delegates agree, hurt the bill's chances for passage. But, armed with his 26-page report on the economics of the issue, Bainum gave a long statement on behalf of the bill, while his supporters looked around the crowded committee room and made wry comments about Christians and lions.
In his testimony, Bainum argued that the bowlers' exemption from the state amusement tax, an exemption approved in 1966 with the support of then-House speaker Marvin Mandel, puts an unfair burden on the people who engage in other sports that are subject to an amusement tax.
Bainum also argued that since the proceeds of a tax on bowlers would go to local governments, it would help ease the burden on property taxpayers, who supply the greatest portion of local revenue in most jurisdictions.
But the bill's opponents countered that it was unfair to levy a tax on a largely blue-collar sport, many of whose participants are very old or very young, with little money to spend on amusement.
"Bowling is a lot different [from other sports]," said Sandy Saunders, manager of the Fair Lanes alleys in College Park. "You have a lot of people on fixed incomes."
Answering these arguments, Bainum told the committee today, "If you play miniature golf, or bingo, if you attend the circus, if you play golf or you're a swimmer or play tennis, you have to pay the [amusement tax]."