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Jason Garcia| Sentinel Staff Writer
February 20, 2009
Orlando's major theme parks are cutting costs in a lot of spots — but not, it appears, when it comes to influencing state government.
New state records show that Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and the parent company of SeaWorld Orlando spent at least $390,000 — and as much as $750,000 — lobbying the Florida Legislature last year.
That was up from a range of $290,000 to $630,000 that the three businesses spent in 2007.
The lobbying helped the parks, along with Florida's broader tourism industry, score a series of legislative victories last year, from stepped-up public advertising to an arcane loophole that spared Disney World from a controversial new law allowing employees to keep guns in their cars while at work.
Representatives for the theme parks declined to discuss their lobbying efforts in significant detail. But they called it a necessary expense for three businesses that together employ more than 80,000 workers in Central Florida and draw millions of tourists to the Orlando area every year.
"As one of Central Florida's largest employers, we have a wide range of interests that may be considered by lawmakers, so we regularly monitor these and other tourism-related matters to stay informed and engaged in the legislative process," Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said Thursday.
The state reports — mandated by a 2005 law that was designed to shed more light on the money spent trying to influence state decisions — require lobbying firms that work in the state Capitol to report the fees they are paid by all of their clients. The fees are reported in ranges, and they do not include money that individual businesses spend on in-house lobbyists.
Those reports show that Disney World paid three firms between $120,000 and $220,000 last year to lobby the Legislature. That is a higher range than the $80,000 to $180,000 that Disney spent in 2007.
Universal Orlando spent between $70,000 and $150,000 on a pair of lobbying firms, according to the reports, up from between $40,000 and $120,000 the previous year.
SeaWorld Orlando owner Anheuser-Busch paid five firms between $200,000 and $380,000, compared with between $170,000 and $330,000 in 2007. The St. Louis-based beer giant, which was acquired last year by Belgian brewer InBev, does not break out lobbying expenses specifically for Busch Entertainment Corp., its theme-park division.
Many of the parks' regulatory concerns are shared by all businesses, ranging from environmental permitting to lawsuit liability to the tax code. But the parks and other tourism businesses also lobby lawmakers about a host of issues unique to their industry.
Lobbying by the theme parks, for instance, helped persuade lawmakers to boost funds for the state's tourism-marketing agency, Visit Florida, to nearly $36million last year — a 7percent increase in a budget year when the Legislature cut overall state spending by almost 10percent.
Park lobbyists were intimately involved in the tourism industry's successful effort to squash a plan that would have allowed the Florida Keys to use hotel taxes for building affordable housing. And they helped beat back efforts to weaken a state law that prevents school districts from beginning classes any earlier than two weeks before Labor Day.
Universal said its lobbyists also focused on preserving funds for television and film projects shot in Florida, which spokesman Tom Schroder called "an important issue for us and our community."
"We operate under the belief that there is always benefit to being an advocate for our company, our industry and our community," Schroder added. "We believe our elected representatives want to hear from us and should hear from us."
Jerry Mullane, vice president of government affairs for Anheuser-Busch, added in a written statement that lobbyists "help us communicate effectively with lawmakers on a host of issues that impact the interests of our customers, employees, company and shareholders."
The theme parks didn't win every battle they fought last year. Disney, for instance, was among the fiercest opponents of an ultimately successful push by the National Rifle Association to pass a new law ensuring businesses cannot prevent their employees from keeping guns in their car when they park at work.
But even that wasn't a total loss for the House of Mickey Mouse: Disney's lobbyists helped insert a last-minute provision into the measure that exempted companies holding certain federal permits for explosives.
Disney, which has such permits for the fireworks it launches in its theme parks each evening, used that provision to declare much of its Central Florida property exempt from the new gun law shortly before it took effect last July.
What they spent on lobbying
Paid three firms between $120,000 and $220,000 in 2008, up from $80,000 to $180,000 spent in 2007.
Spent between $70,000 and $150,000 on a pair of lobbying firms in 2008, up from between $40,000 and $120,000 the previous year.
Paid five firms between $200,000 and $380,000, compared with between $170,000 and $330,000 in 2007.