Explained: DeSantis’s effort to end Disney’s self-government power
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is trying to strip Walt Disney World, “The Most Magical Place on Earth,” of its self-government power amid an ongoing battle with the state’s biggest sources of revenue.
DeSantis announced Tuesday he will convene a special legislative session 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.
The move is a new level in DeSantis’s fight against the tourism giant following Disney’s 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.
Why did Florida grant Disney a special status?
Disney has self-governed itself for more than 50 years. In 1967, the Florida state legislature created the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) which acts with the same authority and responsibility as a county government.
According to historical documents, the government created two municipalities within RCID — Bay Lake and Reedy Creek, later named Lake Buena Vista — nestled between Orange and Osceola Counties.
Since Walt Disney World is the primary landowner of RCID, it is solely responsible for paying the cost of providing municipal services like power, water, roads and fire protection. Walt Disney pushed for the creation of this district since the nearest power and water lines were 10 to 15 miles away.
With this special status, Disney was able to build roads and buildings and provide services without asking for the permission of a county government. Residents of Orange and Osceola Counties do not pay taxes for these services unless they are residents of the district.
How does the government dissolve a special district?
DeSantis asserted in his proclamation that the Florida Constitution “prohibits special laws granting privileges to private corporations” and that “it is necessary to review such independent special districts to ensure that they are appropriately serving the public interest.”
State Rep. Randy Fine (R) submitted a bill to the House and state Sen. Jennifer Bradley (R) submitted a bill to the Florida Senate, which passed Wednesday. The bill would dissolve RCID and five other special districts that have not been re-codified by the legislature as required by law.
According to the bill, the districts would be dissolved as of June 1, 2023. However, they could re-apply to be recognized as a special district again.
“Disney is a guest in Florida,” Fine tweeted Tuesday, saying that Disney is exempt from laws faced by regular Floridians. “Today, we remind them.”
But dissolving RCID might not be so easy. According to a state statute, once the Senate and House pass the bill with the governor’s signature, a majority of the district homeowners would have to vote in favor of dissolving the district, and since most people who live in RCID are employed by Disney, that scenario would be unlikely.
Terry Lewis, an attorney who specializes in special district law, told WFTV Channel 9 that Disney can’t use that legal ground, though, since there was never a referendum to create RCID.
“They’re doing this because the governor has a glass jaw and unfortunately the members of the legislature who represent the majority, they are relenting to him having a very public and costly temper tantrum,” state Rep. Mike Grieco (D) told The Hill in an interview.
What would happen if Reedy Creek was dissolved?
Democrats fear that if DeSantis is successful in removing Disney’s special status, taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties would be left on the hook for an enormous amount of debt.
According to the RCID’s annual financial report for 2021, it carries a debt of nearly $1 billion. As required by Florida law, all that debt would be assumed by Orange and Osceola counties.
“So this is not supposition, this is not conjecture, this is Florida law that says those 1.7 million people are going to have to pick up this bill,” Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer (D) said.
According to Farmer’s assessments, each family in Orange and Osceola counties would likely pay upwards of $2,200 if the counties assumed the debt.
Taxpayers would also become responsible for items Disney currently pays for, like road improvements and other mandatory public services. Battles between taxpayers and county governments would become more likely, like the outrage seen when Orange County approved a controversial $125 million road deal with Orlando’s Universal Studios.
“If they take Reedy Creek away, that responsibility is going to go to a government,” state Sen. Linda Stewart (D) told the Orlando Sentinel. “And the government’s not going to get reimbursed for what they have to pick up and take care of.”
Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond told Florida’s News 6 that they were monitoring the situation because it would have a “very big impact” on taxpayers.
DeSantis said that Disney “alienated a lot of people” as a result of its opposition to the so-called Don’t Say Gay law, after Disney CEO Bob Chapek announced the company would pause political donations.
Chapek received backlash from his employees for not immediately criticizing the bill when it was first introduced, with some staging walkouts.
“It is clear that this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet another challenge to basic human rights. You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down,” Chapek said. “I am sorry.”
Besides the battle between Chapek and DeSantis, Democratic state Rep. Grieco accused Republicans of doing this now because they are trying to distract from the criticism of the newly drawn congressional map.
DeSantis initially called for the special legislative session to approve his congressional map — passed by the Senate Wednesday — which has been denounced by Black lawmakers for being “overtly racist” since it would reduce the number of districts where Black voters are a plurality.
“They are blatantly attempting to eliminate two or more Black representative districts,” Grieco said. “They were catching so much crap for it, annihilated, so — these guys are not stupid — it is deflection.”
But Republicans are defending the measure as one to stand up to Disney’s “wokeness.”
“Look, there’s policy disputes, and that’s fine,” DeSantis said on Fox News. “But when you’re trying to impose a woke ideology on our state, we view that as a significant threat.”
“Shamefully, Disney betrayed us, and the corporation that Walt Disney started — which was a beacon of family values — has now been perverted by a woke mob of liberal extremists into a laboratory of gender identity social experimentation,” state Rep. Jackie Toledo (R) said.
But Aaron Goldberg, a Disney historian and author, doesn’t think Republicans’ criticism of Disney will stop people from going, including those who agree with the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
“Think about your average run-of-the-mill family — Walt Disney World and Disneyland is a rite of passage,” Goldberg said. “I really do think Disney is the biggest purveyor of nostalgia in the world and that’s how they suck you into it.”
The Hill reached out to Disney’s legal team for additional comments.
—Updated 4:03 p.m.
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