Slingshot: Why a Gate Tax on Disneyland is Anaheim's Oldest, Stalest Idea
Updated: Jun 29, 2020
Even though the coronavirus pandemic shows no signs of slowing down in Orange County, Downtown Disney is set to reopen next month. Two Disney hotels have also gotten the go ahead by the state do the same a few weeks later.
Disneyland is still awaiting approval to reopen with its hopes of returning on July 17 dashed away last week. Whenever the Happiest Place on Earth does come back in full, talks of imposing a gate tax have resurrected from the dead, especially as Anaheim faces a steep $75 million budget deficit.
Democrat councilman Jose F. Moreno recently championed the idea anew during a Zoom meeting with constituents. Republican councilwoman Denise Barnes came out publicly in favor it before a scheduled city council meeting last week.
A gate tax on Disneyland? It's only the oldest, stalest idea in Anaheim politics!
Former Anaheim mayor William Thom, a Democrat, toyed with the gate tax on Disneyland as far back as in 1975 before abandoning the idea.
In 1991, the Mouse House made its might known against anyone entertaining such a notion again. Disneyland threatened to kill a planned $3 billion-dollar resort expansion in Anaheim while flirting with Long Beach should city council impose a ticket tax on its theme park.
In 1992, Republican mayor Fred Hunter came out in support of the idea during a debate with his Democratic opponent Tom Daly, who opposed it.
"Holy Toledo, I can’t believe he said that," Irv Pickler, a former councilman, told theLos Angeles Times. The late politician followed up by accusing Hunter of pandering for votes.
At the time, a gate tax was seen as a possible revenue stream to help publicly finance improvements to the Anaheim Resort district as part of Disney's expansion plan that would later became California Adventure, Downtown Disney and the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.
Seemed fair enough, no? But fairness ain't the "Anaheim Way."
Daly bested Hunter that year. In 1996, Anaheim city council voted to support the Disney expansion deal, Mayor Daly included, by issuing a staggering half-a-billion in bonds that the city's still on the hook for--plus interest! The fine print also banned any future council from imposing a gate tax through 2016.
The elusive idea retreated to the reverie of progressive politics, a perennial "what if" boost to the general fund that never came.
It seemed further out of reach five years ago. Before the gate tax ban was set to expire, a pro-Disney council voted to impose a 30-year extension on the moratorium in exchange for Disney investing a billion dollars in its theme park, an expansion that soon became Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.
Then, a Disney worker living wage ballot initiative in 2018 turned everything upside down. Poised to pass, the measure forced the Mouse's gloved hand to dissolve a pair of subsidy triggers. Josh D'Amaro, then the president of the Disneyland Resort, called on Anaheim city council to nix the moratorium as well as bed-tax kickbacks on a planned luxury hotel. Council members did just that.
Where does that leave things now?
"As a city we can ask our voters," said Moreno during a June 17 Zoom meeting. "It would not be the council to impose a tax. The council could simply put it on the ballot, to implement a $1 per ticket fee at our major venues--Disney, the Anaheim Stadium and the Honda Center--that can raise anywhere $8-$28 million dollars as they reopen."
Moreno even offered the caveat of putting a sunset provision on such a levy. Once Anaheim finishes paying off its '96 Disney expansion bond debt, the gate tax lifts.
But the push barely registered a blip on the dais or in the media. Although Disney exposed itself by asking the gate tax ban to be scrapped to escape the clutches of Anaheim's living wage law, the obstacles on the way to such a levy are substantial.
In 2016, Anaheim voters overwhelmingly passed Measure U, also dubbed the "Anaheim Taxpayer Protection Act." It requires a super-majority vote before council members can put new tax measures on the ballot. Former councilwoman Kris Murray began championing the measure in 2015 before the moratorium passed and it was cynically seen by critics as a firewall for Disney.
It's a sturdy one. As it stands now, there's zero chance that five pro-Disney council members would put such a measure before voters, as residents have now seen.
Looking towards November, a reordering on council to surpass the threshold is out of reach.
Three seats are up for grabs. A slate critical of Disney and favorable to a gate tax would only give Moreno a four member majority, one shy of what's needed put the matter before the voters. And such a majority wouldn't be able to rescind the Anaheim Taxpayer Protection Act, either.
"Any voter-approved ordinance can only be repealed or amended by the vote of the people, unless a provision is made in the original ordinance," says Lauren Gold, a city spokeswoman. "In the case of the ordinances you refer to here, there was no provision included in there to direct otherwise."
The only plausible course would be a ballot initiative campaign from the community, which wouldn't require a stiff supermajority in order to qualify. Moreno and Barnes hinted at such in a joint statement released last week.
"If the City Council does not work with business partners to create an agreeable solution, it is certain that an outside group will force the issue through a citizen initiative and special election" it warns, "likely without the input of those whose patrons will be contributing the fee."
But running a traditional signature gathering campaign during a pandemic poses a unique set of challenges, one that has already discouraged or postponed similar efforts elsewhere.
The oldest idea in Anaheim politics may grow grayer still.
- Gabriel San Román
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For two hours on Saturday, the perimeter around the Disneyland Resort became "Cars Land."
That's because the Coalition of Labor Resort Unions organized a caravan protest demanding better safety protocols for workers when the Mouse House eventually reopens during the pandemic. The call to action originally came as Disneyland eagerly awaited state approval for its plans to welcome guests back on July 17, its 65th birthday.
But with surging coronavirus cases and hospitalizations throughout OC and California, the state delayed issuing reopening guidelines for theme parks last week until sometime after July 4.
At the same time, the coalition continued advocating for its members by negotiating with the company and sending Governor Gavin Newsom a letter citing their concerns about reopening too soon. Even with the delay, the caravan protest continued as planned with an emphasis on demanding the company provide routine testing for workers while increasing staffing overall to carry out heftier sanitation workloads.
"In April, my aunt died from COVID-19. My brother has COVID-19 as we speak," said Joey Hamamoto, a valet at Disney’s Grand California Hotel & Spa. "It is vital and necessary that we receive COVID-19 testing for the sake of our families, cast members, guests, and loved ones."
To that end, cars gathered in the parking lot of Benjamin Franklin elementary school in Anaheim as workers gave interviews to the press. By 10 a.m., the caravan, decorated with protest signs and Disney culture jamming, lined up, ready to go. I taped a "We Don't Want a Sicky Mickey" protest sign to my ride, only to have it fly off on the first right turn.
Around the resort, the pace slowed to a crawl when honking horns took the place of chanting slogans. Trying to mesh the two, I honked to the rhythm of "Sí, se puede." That didn't work as well as when I switched to a more universally recognized tune leaving the final "honk, honk" for another car in the caravan to finish off with. A good laugh was had by all.
Two hours and twelve miles later, the caravan disbanded. National headlines followed. The drama of Disneyland and the pandemic continues.
My protest sign rested on Harbor Boulevard with too many tire tracks to make it worth retrieving.
Autopia / Photo by Gabriel San Roman
By the Bylines
A quieter week for me in print this past week so "By the Bylines" gets a bye week, alas. Reminder: this Friday will bring another edition of my monthly "Off the Page" column with LibroMobile--it's a good one so stay tuned!