August 22, 2019

Walt Disney World's political spending

Jason Garcia | 7/26/2019

That puts Disney — which operates cruise ships and timeshares in addition to its giant Central Florida resort — in an elite circle of political donors. Disney’s non-gambling spending, for instance, was a little less than what U.S. Sugar ($10.7 million) and Florida Power & Light parent NextEra Energy ($8.7 million) spent. It spent much more than Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson ($3.5 million), Publix Super Markets ($2.4 million), private-prison operator Geo Group ($2.4 million) and Universal Orlando parent Comcast ($2 million).

Disney’s 2018 spending included $1 million on Amendment 2, which keeps a tax cap in place that limits increases in the taxable value of commercial and other non-homestead property from rising more than 10% per year. Records show Disney was by far the largest donor to a Florida Chamber of Commerce-backed political committee used to promote the amendment. The cap saved Disney more than $6 million last year alone through reduced property tax payments to Orange County and the South Florida Water Management District.

Disney was also one of the biggest banks for Florida politicians. About $5 million of the 2018 spending went directly to candidates, their political committees or the political parties. (Disney’s true spending on legislative campaigns was even higher because the company also gave to third-party political groups that then gave to campaigns — a tactic frequently used to mask the identities of donors paying for controversial attack ads.)

About three of every four dollars of that $5 million went to Republicans, who control majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office.

Under the radar

As prominent as Disney has made itself on the campaign trail, lawmakers who have worked with the company say it still tries hard to maintain a low profile while lobbying — to avoid having its brand linked with potentially controversial public policies.

Disney, for example, has exerted “significant influence” on the Legislature to not pass a law requiring employers to use the e-Verify system to ensure they aren’t employing undocumented workers, says former Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican from Okaloosa County.

“They weren’t holding press conferences about it. Instead, they were pointing out what I would consider to be legitimate issues — like here’s the error rate, here’s where e-Verify failed to work in a particular state or industry. They were into the workability issues,” says Gaetz.

Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Hillsborough County and a former Senate president, says Disney has “a tendency to work through the Chamber of Commerce or AIF or those umbrella organizations — as many groups do — to try to cloak their involvement in the process.”

Cloaked or not, the company enjoyed a number of successes in the 2019 legislative session.

Late in the session, as lawmakers finalized a broad tax package, Disney — working through the Florida Retail Federation — persuaded lawmakers to add an extra sales-tax break that will help big retailers who order too much inventory and wind up not selling it all.

Retailers generally don’t have to pay sales tax when they order inventory because they are planning to resell it to consumers. The sale to consumers is the transaction that’s supposed to be taxed. But retailers must pay the tax on whatever they don’t sell, since they have become the end user of the product.

Disney has for years donated its leftover inventory to charities. So the company persuaded the Legislature to create a sales tax exemption for the leftover inventory that goes to charity. Economists expect the new tax break will save retailers about $5 million a year. Disney won’t say how much it expects to save itself.

Disney also worked quietly to reshape a bill, which it objected to in 2018, that would have exposed hotel operators to civil lawsuits if they failed to do enough to prevent human trafficking.

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