Sunday, December 22, 2019

The time has come to change Central Florida’s rigged economy | Orlando Sentinel Editorial

The time has come to change Central Florida’s rigged economy | Editorial

Gabby Alcantara-Anderson works at Magic Kingdom but she and her family struggle to make ends meet. (Rich Pope / Orlando Sentinel)

The time has come to change Central Florida’s rigged economy | Editorial

DEC 20, 2019 | 11:45 AM

Dogged reporting by Orlando Sentinel reporters for the “Laborland” series has exposed the hardships of holding a full-time job in Central Florida’s tourism economy.
Families don’t make enough money to find decent shelter. Workers sleep in cars because they can’t afford gas. Mothers and fathers spend weary hours on buses each day just getting to and from work, time they could be spending with their families.

On the other end of the economic spectrum, there’s a party going on. A sweetheart tax structure, jealously guarded by this region’s government and business class, helps multibillion-dollar tourism interests by advertising their theme parks and building roads for visitors.
In a theme park parking lot at night, a worker sleeps in her car. This is life in America’s most visited city

In a theme park parking lot at night, a worker sleeps in her car. This is life in America’s most visited city

It’s a rigged economy. And it has to fundamentally change if this region is ever going to lift itself out of economic mediocrity.
We saw just this past week how the rigged economy works.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings led the charge for a deal to spend $125 million in county money to extend Kirkman Road, a project Universal Orlando wants to build a new theme park. The county’s money, coming mostly from a special taxing district, is paying for a 1.7-mile stretch of asphalt that carries an absurd price tag of $305 million.
Universal’s picking up part of the tab, but the public turned out in force Tuesday night to ask why the county is spending so much on a road whose primary beneficiary is a public company that made more than $11 billion in profit last year. Good question.
The answer might be found partly in Universal’s smash-mouth lobbying tactics. Unhappy last summer with a proposal on a different issue, a Universal lobbyist threatened that the company would leave the county and annex into the city of Orlando’s boundaries. It was their way or the highway.
Universal was making nice on Monday, a day ahead of the meeting to decide whether to approve the road deal. Demings and county commissioners stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a company executive who announced Universal was setting aside 20 acres for 1,000 affordable-housing units, land assessed at less than $10 million.
Universal said the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with the next day’s county meeting on whether to spend 10 times that much in public money on a new road to a new theme park.
Mere coincidence, Universal said, the culmination of months of planning. Strangely, those months of planning led to an announcement that was painfully short on details, like who’s going to build this housing and who’s going to pay for it and who will be eligible to live in it.
The next day, Tuesday, commissioners were led to believe there weren’t many options for spending the money, that it had to be spent on transportation inside the taxing district where it was collected. At best, that was not the whole truth. More Sentinel reporting revealed the commission can — and has in the past — moved unspent money from the taxing district into the general fund, the big bucket of county money that can be spent on lots of different needs.
Like improving the inadequate bus system that forces theme park workers to lose so much time with their families.
But in the calculus of a rigged economy, helping theme parks is more important than helping the labor force. So commissioners approved the Universal deal by a 4-3 vote.
It was just the latest county decision to help big tourism businesses at taxpayer expense.
In 2013, commissioners voted to spend $4.5 million on a pedestrian bridge connecting a new Universal hotel with its Islands of Adventure theme park. Dissenting commissioners objected because Universal wasn’t paying a dime toward a project benefiting them alone. It was approved in a 4-3 vote.
At the heart of the rigged economy is the state’s tourist tax, a levy on each night visitors spend at a hotel, campground, Airbnb or other lodging. Last year, Orange County collected an astonishing $277 million from the 6% tax.
Orlando hotel taxes don’t pay for roads or housing like in other cities. One reason: Disney and Universal’s political power
With a couple of very limited, county-specific exceptions, state law mandates that the money must be spent on promoting tourism or building facilities like convention centers and basketball arenas and performance halls.
In Orange County, the tourist tax has helped pay for the Amway Center and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Local officials proudly point to those as tourist tax benefits for the general public.
That’s true, unless you’re one of the low-paid workers who power our tourism economy. They often can’t afford an apartment, much less tickets to “Hamilton.” Those venues are better suited to the pocketbooks of tourism’s executive class, and the politicians who vote to help out their companies.
We do not question the overall value tourism brings to this region.
But the time when Central Florida needed to direct so much money to compete for visitors has long passed. The tourism economy here is fully matured. It’s time to take better care of a long-neglected, practically invisible segment of the labor force.
Government and business leaders know this, and should have been willing long ago to join forces and lobby for changes in state law that would expand the tourist tax’s spending options. Portions of the money could go to help the general public — including tourism’s labor force — in areas like transportation, safety, housing and health.
But the people who wield power in this region are comfortable with the status quo. Locally, they’ve shown zero interest in expanding tourist tax spending options to help the region’s workers and pay for the costs associated with tourism.
Changing the status quo requires courage, and that’s what Central Florida needs from its political and business leaders. A lawmaking session of the state Legislature is about to begin. Now is the time for locally elected officials to make a choice and finally come to the aid of their forgotten constituents by insisting we change the way tourist tax money can be spent.
We cannot continue to tolerate the economic conditions — illustrated in “Laborland” and related news coverage — that confront the very people whose labor makes this region successful.
This rigged economy must go.

Editorials are the opinion of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board and are written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Opinion Editor Mike Lafferty, Shannon Green, Jay Reddick, David Whitley and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.

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