Florida lawmakers vote to strip Disney’s self-government

Southeast

(NewsNation) — Florida lawmakers Thursday gave final passage to a bill that would strip Walt Disney World of its self-government power, handing Gov. Ron DeSantis a win in his feud with the entertainment giant.

The move is a new level in DeSantis’s fight with Disney following its opposition to what critics call Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which limits how Florida educators can discuss gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade. 

In March, Disney said it would support organizations working to oppose the new law and suspend political donations in the state.

DeSantis convened a special legislative session on redistricting the state’s congressional maps, adding a last-minute proclamation that sought to terminate “all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968” which includes the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special taxing district that allows Walt Disney World to oversee its property as a quasi-governmental agency. 

It allows the company to control permitting, firefighting, power generation and road maintenance on their 27,0000-acre resort near Orlando.

“It turns out that there’s hundreds of them (special independent districts) across the state,” said Florida State Senator Tina Polsky, a Democrat who voted against the measure. “So in order to punish Disney, they came up with a way to distinguish the Disney independent special district from others. And they decided that districts that were formed before 1968 and have not been reconstituted could be dissolved.”

“There are actually five other special districts,” she said. “You know, they’re not as serious as the Disney one, the Reedy Creek independent special district, because it’s so huge.”

The bill would dissolve the special district June 1, 2023.

The bill passed by the legislature does allow for the districts to be reestablished, leaving an avenue to renegotiate its future

The House and Senate in Florida are both controlled by Republicans. The bill passed the state Senate on Wednesday and now moves to DeSantis’ office to be signed into law.

The move could have huge tax implications for Disney, whose series of theme parks have transformed Orlando into one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

“It means higher taxes,” said Dr. Charles Zelden, speaking on Thursday’s “Rush Hour.”

Zelden is a professor in the department of humanities and politics at Nova Southeastern University and says residents’ pockets will be among the first elements affected.

“Now, local taxpayers are going to have to pay for this as opposed to those paying fees and buying tickets at Disney,” Zelden said.

According to Polsky, if no action is taken by the legislature in the next year, these independent special districts will dissolve and they have to be absorbed by the counties and the cities in which they are physically located.

“Part of reabsorbing these areas is that they absorb the debt,” Polsky said. “So all of that could get passed along to the taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties. So that’s the concern.”

One Republican state senator told NewsNation that taking away Disney’s mini-government could raise property taxes for homeowners near Disney by 15 to 20 percent.

“That is why the 12-month ramp up, or delay, State Sen. Manny Díaz, a Republican, said. “Allows the legislature … it is a complex issue. It allows the legislature to really dig in on the effects.”

Democrats have criticized the proposal as clear retaliation against the company and warned that local homeowners could get hit with big tax bills if they have to absorb bond debt from Disney — although such details are far from clear.

“The debt service alone for Reedy Creek is over a billion dollars,” said State Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat. “This bill makes no provision as to how that debt service is going to be assumed.”

“I’m calling it revenge governance,” Polsky said.

But not all Florida politicians are opposed to DeSantis’ move. State Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. told “NewsNation Prime” on Thursday that it’s not a dig at Disney.

“I think what happens is, as Gov. DeSantis said, we shouldn’t be providing special privileges to private citizens,” Diaz Jr. said.

Disney is one of Florida’s biggest private employers, last year saying it had more than 60,000 workers in the state. It is not immediately clear how the company or local governments around its properties would be affected if the district was dissolved.

The creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, and the control it gave Disney over 27,000 acres in Florida, was a crucial element in the company’s plans to build near Orlando in the 1960s.

Company officials said they needed autonomy to plan a futuristic city along with the theme park. The city never materialized, however; instead, it morphed into the Epcot theme park.

Disney has yet to comment on the vote.

The Hill and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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