A tale of two Tax Day rallies: Orlandoans rally against U.S. military aid to Israel and demand tax refund from corporate lobbyists

‘We just want to get some of that money back so that our communities can benefit from it.’

click to enlarge Affordable advocates with the Florida for All coalition rally on Tax Day. - Florida For All Education Fund
Florida For All Education Fund
Affordable advocates with the Florida for All coalition rally on Tax Day.
Central Florida locals gathered for two rallies to mark Tax Day Monday, each advocating for different causes related to the interests and pockets of Florida taxpayers.

One group — featuring representatives from Central Florida Queers for Palestine and the Orlando chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, among other organizations — rallied outside the downtown Orlando USPS office Monday morning to protest the billions of dollars the United States has given to Israel in military aid that have funded deadly attacks on Palestinians and aid workers in Gaza.

Another group from the coalition Florida for All, including representatives of several labor unions, rallied to demand a “tax refund” from corporate lobbyists in Central Florida who have fought to block legislation that would allow expanded uses for tourism tax dollars.

Florida for everyone

Currently, Florida law limits how revenue from local municipalities’ tourist development tax (TDT) can be spent. In Orange County, that tax is a 6% levy added to the cost of a hotel room or other short-term lodging.

The Florida for All Education Fund — a statewide coalition that includes Florida Rising Together, Florida Immigrant Together, Faith in Florida, Central Florida Jobs With Justice, Dream Defenders and SEIU — support changes to allow greater flexibility in spending. Specifically, changes to state law that’d allow local elected leaders to spend this revenue to fund community projects as improvements to public transit and affordable housing solutions.

“If it wasn't for the hotel workers and small businesses, that money wouldn't be produced,” said Gómez-Tejeda of the local TDT funds. “We just want to get some of that money back so that our communities can benefit from it.”

State law currently only allows TDT revenue to be spent on tourism-related projects like stadium expansions, arts and cultural projects, convention centers, and tourism advertising — with little flexibility for other projects or programs that could directly benefit the tourism industry’s largely low-wage workforce.

“How can there be money for sports arenas and 30-second advertisements so tourists can enjoy our city, while those who live here can barely pay our bills?” said Ayla Edwards of Florida Rising Together.

Edwards' husband works as a manager at a McDonald's in a local theme park, making $18 an hour. The couple and their three children are facing a $150 to $200 rent increase next month for their two-bedroom, three-bath rental, said Edwards. “I fear if we don't get resources to help affordable housing prices, and rent continues to rise, that we will soon be sleeping in our cars like many of my friends and people in my community that work for these big corporations.”

Changes have been proposed by state lawmakers over the years, with some support from local elected leaders, to allow more flexibility in how that pot of money can be spent. Orlando State Rep. Anna Eskamani has advocated for such initiatives in the past, and lobbyists for Orange County also went up to Tallahassee this year to similarly lobby in support of flexible spending.

But Florida’s tourism industry, threatened by the idea of potentially seeing a decline in their pool of public money, has lobbied behind the scenes (or sometimes out in the open) to prevent such changes.

That includes the Central Florida Hotel & Lobbying Association, an industry trade group that represents big hotel groups like Hilton Hotels, Disney and Universal Orlando resorts, Marriott and Aloft, among others.

Advocates with Florida for All rallied outside CFHLA headquarters Monday afternoon, calling for a $56 million “tax refund” from the trade group, which is meant to represent the estimated amount of money the county could have pulled in for affordable housing this year if the county had more flexibility in TDT spending, according to Florida for All special projects director Ericka N. Gómez-Tejeda.

Gómez-Tejeda highlighted that everyday Floridians fund more than 76% of the state’s revenue through Florida’s sales tax, while corporations only contribute 11% to the state’s revenue through a corporate income tax statewide.

“People organically understand that there's a crisis that's happening both around housing and transportation, and that we need extra funding that's available to us,” Gómez-Tejeda told Orlando Weekly.

The CFHLA, an influential force in the state Legislature along with the FRLA at large, has publicly admitted they oppose greater flexibility in TDT spending.

“CFHLA strongly opposed adding any new or expanded uses for TDT revenues, as doing so only serves to dilute the effectiveness of the dollars, which are statutorily established for the promotion and marketing of tourism,” the group stated in their 2024 Florida Legislative Report.

According to their report, the group this year also supported initiatives to relax Florida’s child labor laws, increase regulation of food delivery platforms like DoorDash (while simultaneously preventing local communities from enacting any stronger regulations) and offer up enticing tax breaks to affordable housing developers.

Representatives from the labor union Unite Here Local 737 — which represents workers at Disney World and the Orange County Convention Center — as well as 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, Florida Rising, Central Florida Jobs with Justice, Florida Immigrant Together, Hablamos Español FL, Hope Community Center and Florida Student Power Network were present at the Florida for All rally.

So was Orlando State Sen. Victor Torres, a pro-labor Democrat who spent decades working in the public sector — as a police officer in New York and later as a Lynx bus driver here in the Orlando area.

Orlando for Palestine

Meanwhile, at noon Monday, pro-Palestinian advocates gathered in downtown Orlando to voice a call to action for the Biden Administration and Florida members of U.S. Congress amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

click to enlarge Locals gathered outside of the downtown Orlando USPS office on Tax Day, April 15, to uplift calls to action in support of Palestinians and against further U.S. military aid to Israel. - Orlando for Palestine
Orlando for Palestine
Locals gathered outside of the downtown Orlando USPS office on Tax Day, April 15, to uplift calls to action in support of Palestinians and against further U.S. military aid to Israel.

Specifically, the ad-hoc Orlando for Palestine group is organizing around calls to cease the country’s military aid to Israel, re-fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, and to demand an immediate and permanent ceasefire and release of all hostages, including Palestinians detained by Israeli authorities.

Pro-Palestinian protestors also blocked traffic in Tampa this morning, as part of a national Strike for Gaza action organized locally in Tampa by Bay Area Dream Defenders.

More than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, when Hamas, a militant Palestinian group, launched an attack on Israel that killed around 1,200 people. Since then, Israel has launched brutal attacks of their own, funded in part by U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Aid workers, women, children, and babies have been among those killed by Israeli airstrikes, while the population is also suffering from famine and a collapsed healthcare system. Nearly half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million are children, below age 18.

Pro-Palestinian advocates who gathered for a peaceful protest earlier Monday in Orlando were shortly visited by local cops, according to organizers.

Because the group hadn’t secured a permit for the rally, the cops required them to turn off their microphones minutes after the rally’s start, organizers said. Otherwise, the cops largely just kept an eye on the group gathered and there was little trouble.

Advocates have organized frequent rallies and marches in Orlando since Oct. 7, in support of Palestinians overseas.

For Jasmine Diab, a second-generation Palestinian American, the issue is personal — but she also believes it’s a cause that’s bigger than just herself or the Middle East. “This is not just an Arab or Muslim issue,” Diab told Orlando Weekly. “This is a humanitarian issue.”

Diab helps run a phone-banking initiative, the Florida Ceasefire Group, which gives people call scripts to call their senators and representatives, urging them to support a permanent ceasefire.

Corey Hill, another co-organizer of Monday's collective action, said that Floridians’ tax dollars could be put to better use in supporting programs to address pressing needs in their local communities, from affordable housing to healthcare and mass transit.

“For me, to see so many glaring needs juxtaposed with the just endless flow of military aid from the United States to a state that has been found by the International Court of Justice to plausibly be engaged in the genocide, it's pretty difficult to look at that and just want to stand by and do nothing,” Hill told Orlando Weekly.

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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