August 22, 2019

Walt Disney World's political spending

Jason Garcia | 7/26/2019

Sen. Lauren Book, a Broward County Democrat, worked closely with the company this year to rewrite the legislation. The provisions dealing with hotels were changed to require hotels to train certain workers to spot and report signs of potential trafficking — but it also explicitly said that inadequate training was not grounds for a lawsuit. Book says she worked with Disney lobbyists on details such as which hotel workers needed to be trained. With Disney on board, the legislation passed this spring.

“They helped us to really pinpoint, I think, the things that we really wanted to curb and they worked in good faith to make things happen,” Book says.

Another example of Disney’s influence came with an obscure transportation bill supported by the road-building industry this spring. The legislation was sparked by controversies in Southwest Florida, where Cape Coral and Lee County set their own standards for the kinds of aggregates — crushed rock, limestone, coquina and other materials — that contractors could use in road projects.

The road-building industry began lobbying lawmakers to pre-empt that power and require all local governments to follow the Florida Department of Transportation’s standards. But that alarmed officials at the Reedy Creek Improvement District — the Disney-controlled government that, among other things, oversees the road network at Disney World.

John Classe, Reedy Creek’s district administrator, says his agency requires a different asphalt mix than FDOT because Reedy Creek’s roads handle more heavy vehicles than typical state roads because of all the Disney buses ferrying tourists between hotels and theme parks. Reedy Creek worried that it might be prohibited from using that formula if the road builders’ legislation passed. Reedy Creek alerted Disney’s lobbyists, who got the Legislature to include an exception.

The bill ultimately passed, requiring cities and counties — but not Reedy Creek — to follow FDOT’s lead.

Disney even won some changes in state rules for how tourist venues manage all the stuff — from hats to strollers to phones — that visitors lose or leave behind. Generally, businesses are supposed to alert law enforcement and must hold on to lost property for 90 days before they can dispose of it. But that has become cumbersome for Disney — and for Universal Orlando, Central Florida’s other big theme-park resort — which must devote lots of warehouse space simply to holding lost-and-found items.

Disney helped write a bill establishing new rules for theme parks, hotels and some other commercial venues that requires them to hold the property for just 30 days and then donate it directly to charity.

The bill didn’t make it out of committee last year, but lawmakers made the lost-and-found bill one of the very first pieces of legislation to pass this spring. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law before session was even over.

Disney, for its part, was clearly pleased by the session. On the final day, about an hour before lawmakers adjourned for their traditional end-of-session sine die ceremony, Disney lobbyist Adam Babington texted Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Polk County Republican who is one of the company’s closest allies in the Legislature and had worked on both the sales tax break for donated inventory and the lost-and-found legislation.

“Thank you for everything this session!” Babington texted Stargel. “We appreciate it!”

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