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Despite a Florida bill empowering Gov. Ron DeSantis to take control of its special tax district, Disney will get to keep most of the perks that’s allowed the company to self-govern the land on its theme park resort for over 50 years.
Legislation introduced on Monday by Republicans in Florida’s Legislature would reshape the leadership structure and change the name of Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District. But under the bill, Disney would retain almost all of its exemptions from a host of regulations, taxes and fees in addition to powers allowing it to act much like its own government, including the issuance of bonds. The proposal advances DeSantis’ crusade seeking to overhaul the education establishment as he positions himself for a presidential run next year by cornering Disney into keeping quiet on cultural issues, like gender identity and sexual orientation, or risk having him disrupt company operations.
Last year, Florida lawmakers passed a bill dissolving independent special districts that were created prior to 1968. While the state has hundreds of special districts, most were set up after that date. Without legislation re-establishing Disney’s special tax status, the counties that would take up oversight of Reedy Creek would inherit an estimated billion-plus in bond debt.
The feud between Florida lawmakers and Disney started when the company pushed back on the Parental Rights in Education Law, which prohibits instruction on gender sexuality through the third grade. Disney initially stayed silent on the legislation, but later opposed it under pressure from employees.
After the company suspended political donations in the state and vowed to push for the law’s repeal, DeSantis shot back by calling the company a “woke corporation” trying to influence state affairs. “If we want to keep the Democrat machine and their corporate lapdogs accountable, we have to stand together now,” DeSantis wrote in a fundraising pitch sent in April. His retaliation culminated with the passage of a bill stripping Disney of its special tax status after he asked lawmakers to consider the “termination” of its self-governing privileges.
Under the new bill, DeSantis would have the authority to appoint every member of the special tax district’s five-member governing body subject to approval by the state Senate. Anyone who’s been employed by Disney in the past three years will be barred from serving. Additionally, the Board of Supervisors will get to appoint a chief executive who will be in charge of day-to-day operations.
The Board of Supervisors is currently chosen by landowners in Reedy Creek, who mostly consist of Disney employees.
Reedy Creek would also be renamed to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District if the bill is passed.
Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a statement that the company is monitoring the legislation. “Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year,” he said.
Rep. Anna V. Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando, tells The Hollywood Reporter that the bill is intended to retaliate against Disney for exercising its First Amendment rights when the company challenged Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law and deter potential opposition in the future. She says Disney was likely okay with the tradeoff because “they still get the special perks,” including exemptions from taxes on certain construction materials and impact fees for using public services.
She adds, “The inner workings [of the special district] stay the same. The only difference is Disney won’t challenge the governor on anything anymore.”
Richard Foglesong, a professor at Rollins College who wrote a book about Disney’s relationship with Florida, stresses the bill wasn’t intended to strip Disney of any of its powers but to give DeSantis leverage over the company by being able to appoint the special district’s governing body. He argues that the move may force Disney to act more conservatively.
“He will appoint people to this board that are so called ‘culture warriors’ who will want to use their control over the special purpose government to promote anti-woke programs,” he says.
A similar version of events played out in January when DeSantis overhauled the leadership at the New College of Florida, a small liberal arts school in the state. Pointing to low enrollment and test scores, he installed six new conservative members to the college’s board of trustee. They then voted to replace the president.
Disney, a former DeSantis donor, remains one of the state’s largest employers. After it was granted a $578 million tax break, the company announced it would move 2,000 jobs from California to Florida, though plans were delayed amidst its fight with DeSantis.
The bill will be considered during a special legislative session on Wednesday. It’s expected to be passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives next week.
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