Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a bill into law that strips Disney World of its status as an “independent special district” in retaliation for the company’s stances on social and educational issues.
The bill repeals a 1967 provision that granted Disney World the right to govern itself without state interference. Under that now-repealed 55-year-old law, the state created the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which set aside 25,000 acres in Orange and Osceola counties under the control of Disney.
The Republican-led House and Senate, which have been slavishly subservient to DeSantis, quickly approved the bill on largely party-line votes earlier this week. They also approved a second bill removing a Disney-specific exemption in a 2021 law prohibiting companies from censoring conservative voices on social media.
The company was allowed to appoint its own government that regulates property, collects taxes and provides its own emergency services to the Walt Disney World Resort and affiliated properties.
The arrangement also allowed The Walt Disney Company to build new structures and pay impact fees for construction without having to go through a local planning commission, reports NBC News. To handle other matters, such as policing or the courts, Disney has partnered with other local governments to share some of the burden.
But DeSantis became fixated on the special status granted to Disney after the company spoke out against and called for the repeal of a so-called “parental rights” measure he signed into law limiting LGBTQ content or discussions in schools.
The law, which goes into effect July 1, has been dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics. Under its provisions, teachers are prohibited from facilitating class discussions touching on sexual orientation or gender identity through the third grade, or in older grades, if the material can be deemed not to be “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”
Ironically, when the law was first proposed Disney had sought to remain neutral by avoiding taking a firm stance on the proposed legislation — which suited Florida Republicans just fine. But the company soon faced an internal backlash from its LGBTQ employees and their allies within Disney and several Disney subsidiaries.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek, who initially defended the decision to avoid speaking about political issues, was ultimately forced to apologize for the company’s inaction, and Disney issued a statement after the bill was signed into law calling for its repeal.
In justifying the move to repeal Disney’s ability to govern itself, DeSantis said it was unfair that a single corporation was treated differently from others — although he rejected entreaties by liberals to reexamine and rescind other special tax breaks or benefits granted to other corporations.
The Human Rights Campaign criticized DeSantis, accusing him of penalizing a private company for holding a contrarian opinion.
“Governor DeSantis is wielding the power of the state to punish businesses simply for not falling in line with his brutal and discriminatory attacks,” HRC Interim President Joni Madison said in a statement. “It’s simply another example of Gov. DeSantis’s attempts to tell people what to say, how to teach, what they can learn, what they can believe, and who they can be, and shows that Gov. DeSantis is prioritizing attacking LGBTQ+ people over the well-being of his state.
“Every step of this entire ordeal in Florida has been nothing more than a shameful attempt to out-Trump Trump through fear, hate and lies,” Madison continued. “More than 200 major businesses, including Disney, have refused to cower to the tyrannical threats of politicians and are speaking out against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Florida and across the country. These companies are standing with their employees, their customers and shared values of human decency, dignity and respect. Despite the constant political attacks on LGBTQ+ people, we will continue to speak out and ask that our employers join us. We’re not going anywhere.”
By repealing the establishment of Disney’s special district, effective June 1, 2023, Florida lawmakers are returning Disney-owned land back to the control of Orange and Osceola counties. According to CNBC, that means the two counties would have to provide local services that are currently provided by Reedy Creek, adding additional expenditures to their budgets.
State Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay), the sponsor of the bill eliminating Reedy Creek, claims that the $105 million Disney pays to Reedy Creek would just be transferred to the local county governments and used to foot the bill for additional emergency services, sanitation, and services on Disney-owned properties.
But Scott Randolph, the tax collector for Orange County, told CNBC that the nearly $105 million the Reedy Creek district collects in taxes would disappear with the dissolution of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, because the tax revenues generated by the district are in addition to the taxes it already pays to Orange and Osceola counties. Disney paid about $280 million in property taxes to the two counties between 2015 and 2020.
“If you dissolved Reedy Creek, that $105 million in revenue literally goes away, it doesn’t get transferred,” Randolph said.
Beyond the question of tax revenues, Reedy Creek has bond liabilities of between $1 billion and $1.7 billion, reports CNBC. Under Florida statute, if Reedy Creek is dissolved, those liabilities are transferred to the local governments — most likely to Orange and Osceola counties. If the figure is closer to $1.7 billion, that could amount to $1,000 additional dollars in tax burden per taxpayer.
Further complicating the issue is that, in order to collect additional revenue from Disney to pay the bond debt, Orange and Osceola counties would have to create new special tax districts of their own. But that tax rate of those districts would be capped below that of the current district rate, meaning there would less revenue to pay off the bond debt.
Curtis Sparrer, the principal of Bospar PR, a San Francisco-based public relations firm, called the optics of politicians exacting revenge on a corporation for personal beliefs a “big old mess.”
“I think that the Republicans have been in their own kind of echo chamber, so much so that they whip themselves into a frenzy, where they think this is a really good idea. They are taking on an emblem that’s as American as apple pie, and I think that this is going to be their Waterloo,” Sparrer told Metro Weekly.
“I think Disney is going to fight back,” he added. “And I don’t think the Republicans in Florida are prepared for what that could look like. I think Disney is a company with deep pockets. I think they have all sorts of savvy. And when this is over, I think the Republicans are going to have a really big, bloody nose.
“Republicans, in general, like to run on the platform that they are pro-business and rather laissez-faire…. A lot of businesses today have LGBTQ-friendly policies, and they want to run their businesses accordingly,” Sparrer added. “And so if DeSantis says, ‘Businesses, you could run yourselves as you see fit, except we don’t want you to do it when it comes to gay people,’ that becomes a problem…. And so I suspect several companies are taking a serious look at the situation with Disney and thinking: do they want to band together and stand up to this bully?”
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