Metro Weekly

DeSantis’s Revenge: Florida Takes Over Disney’s Special Tax District

DeSantis appointees to head board overseeing district, a move that critics say is retribution for Disney pausing political donations.

Walt Disney World – Photo: Kaleeb18, via Wikimedia

The Florida Legislature recently passed a bill stripping away Walt Disney World Resort’s self-governance powers as retribution for Disney’s actions taken in response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The legislature approved the bill, which puts the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special tax district covering 25,000 acres of Disney properties in Orange and Osceola counties, under the thumb of a special board whose members will be appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, reports The Associated Press.

DeSantis, a backer of the “Don’t Say Gay” law, also known as the “Parental Rights in Education” bill has claimed that the move is to end decades of Disney being given special perks that aren’t granted to other corporations, such as the ability to govern itself, including providing public safety services and approving major infrastructure or development plans without having to seek the approval of local regulators. 

However, critics of the governor maintain that the move is political revenge for Disney’s decision to speak out against the so-called “parental rights” law, which prohibits all discussions of sexual orientation and gender topics in grades K-3 and places limits on what can be said about LGBTQ topics in older grades.

Opponents of the law say that, in practice, it can lead — and already has led — to incidents of censorship of LGBTQ-identifying students by restricting their speech or barring them from certain activities, and intimidates teachers by making them fearful of losing their jobs if they address anti-LGBTQ bullying, offer themselves as a resource for LGBTQ students, or sponsor an after-school club like a Gender and Sexuality Alliance or Gay-Straight Alliance, also known as a GSA. 

While Disney was initially silent about the bill, with CEO Bob Chapek rightly worrying that any opposition to the proposal would lead to a Republican- and DeSantis-led backlash against Disney, employees of Disney and Pixar blasted the decision not to speak out as an act of cowardice, and questioned the company’s commitment to its LGBTQ employees — despite Chapek’s effort to express support for them.

Critics, including many Disney employees, also participated in demonstrations protesting the company’s refusal to take a stand against the law, as well as for its past financial support of some of the legislature’s most anti-LGBTQ lawmakers. 

The bad press led Chapek to apologize for being silent, and to vow to oppose similar anti-LGBTQ legislation. Chapek also announced that the company would pause all political donations to Florida politicians while it “reassessed” the company’s overall political donation policies.

But that decision enraged DeSantis and Republicans, who accused Disney of catering to “wokeness” and accused the company of seeking to indoctrinate children into left-wing ideology or bully them into accepting LGBTQ identities.

The governor, who is rumored to have presidential ambitions, has made willingness to engage “culture war” issues by attacking political correctness, LGBTQ visibility, and social justice initiatives a central part of his political identity.

At the governor’s behest, lawmakers moved to eliminate Disney’s privileges by revoking the ability of all special tax districts in the state to govern themselves. Critics of a plan to abolish such districts noted that the move would require taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties to shoulder the additional tax burden of paying for fire protection, police, and road maintenance for all Disney-owned properties, as well as assume nearly $1 billion in debt that has been incurred by the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

Seeking to fix the problem, the legislature took up legislation in a special session that would allow Disney to keep its special tax district, and retain some perks, such as the ability to issue tax-exempt bonds and approve its own development projects, but placed the district — now renamed the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District” — under control by a board appointed by Florida’s governor.

According to The New York Times, under the law, the board may choose to impose taxes on Disney to help fund road improvements outside the boundaries of Walt Disney World Resort; eliminates exemptions from state regulatory reviews, which could cause the cost of building projects to increase; and prevents Disney from building a nuclear power plant or airport on its properties.

Due to their political allegiance to DeSantis, there is also concern that the board might block other development efforts like building a new hotel, an access road, or an additional theme park out of spite. However, the board does not have the power to dictate the content that Disney offers to customers. 

Additionally, the tax district’s comprehensive plan already gives Disney the ability to build a fifth theme park, two additional water parks, and hotel lodgings on 850 acres until 2032. Currently, no such plans are in the works, but the board could not step in and reverse course if Disney were to move forward with such developments.

“For more than 50 years, the Reedy Creek Improvement District has operated at the highest standards,” Jeff Vahle, Disney World’s president, said in a statement to the Times following the signature of the new restrictions into law. “We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework.”

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