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Mardi Gras fundraiser a bad look for Universal

The same people collecting checks this weekend will vote on a Universal Studios priority next week.

The top Republicans in the Florida Legislature will be at Universal Studios this weekend for a fundraiser benefitting the Florida GOP’s Senate Majority and House Majority funds.

The fundraiser isn’t out of the ordinary. In fact, Republican lawmakers have held a Universal Mardi Gras fundraiser for a few years now.

Still, it raises some ethics questions. The Orlando Sentinel’s Scott Maxwell hit upon some of them in a op-ed published earlier this week. But his take focuses on the broad strokes question about whether it’s right or wrong for corporate interests to provide in-kind contributions for events attended by people voting on policy that could benefit their bottom line.

“Public officials can’t take free things from businesses that want favors from them,” Maxwell wrote. “Yet Florida legislators take free hotel rooms — along with free meals and theme park tickets — from theme parks that need legislative favors year after year. And nobody bats an eye … much less busts out the handcuffs.”

That’s true. Since companies foot the bill for these fundraisers by way of in-kind contributions to political committees, which don’t have to follow the same rules as candidates, they are fully legal. There’s no gray area about it. Whether or not voters think it’s above board is a different question. It doesn’t mean business or lawmakers are breaking the law.

But frankly, I’m not in total agreement with Maxwell on the corrupting influence of these kinds of events.

There is an excellent case to be made that lawmakers should know Florida’s theme parks. They are, after all, a major tourist destination.

I would say the same about the numerous fundraisers held at small businesses across the state. Just as Universal is an important cog in our state’s economy, local businesses are vital to the economy of each lawmaker’s district. Accepting their financial help — be it through in-kind donations or checks — is A-Okay.

One thing about this particular fundraiser doesn’t sit right with me, though.

There is a piece of legislation (HB 261) known as the “beer bill” filed for the 2019 Legislative Session. It would allow beer companies to advertise in theme parks by altering the state’s “tied house evil” law, which prohibits alcohol companies from advertising in the places that sell their products.

The change would let alcohol companies sponsor things such as concerts or festivals within a park. There’s no shortage of those — look no further than Universal Mardi Gras for an example. One would think this would be a win-win for theme parks and distributors. Not so.

Smaller beer companies fear the bill would lock them out while the big dogs get another opportunity to dominate them in the ad game. Bigger beer companies say it would lead to exhortative practices and bidding wars over sponsorships. Theme parks laugh their way to the bank no matter.

Just like lawmakers hit up Universal Mardi Gras last year, this proposal isn’t new. It was put forward in 2018.

So, what’s the rub?

The same people who will be collecting checks this weekend are heading to Tallahassee next week, when the beer bill is set to go before it’s first committee.

Will the fat checks they collect celebrating an early Fat Tuesday influence their vote? Maybe. Maybe not.

Either way, it’s a dumpster fire of a PR move for Universal. They may not be looking to explicitly grease palms to secure passage for a favored bill, but could you blame someone for believing otherwise?

Written By

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including Florida Politics and Orlando Rising and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Schorsch is also publisher of INFLUENCE Magazine. For several years, Peter's blog was ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

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