Explained: DeSantis’ efforts to end Disney’s self-government power

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right) is trying to strip Walt Disney World, ‘the most magical place on earth’, of its power of self-government amid an ongoing battle with top sources of state revenue.

DeSantis announced Tuesday that he would call a special legislative session to end “all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968,” including the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special tax district that allows Walt Disney World to oversee its ownership as a quasi-governmental agency.

The move is a new level in DeSantis’ fight against the tourism giant over 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 from kindergarten to third grade.

Why did Florida give special status to Disney?

Disney has been self-governing for over 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 records, the government created two municipalities within the 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 such as power, water, roads, and fire protection. Walt Disney pushed for the creation of this neighborhood because the closest power and water lines were 10 to 15 miles away.

With this special status, Disney was able to construct roads and buildings and provide services without seeking permission from 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 these special independent districts to ensure that they properly serve the public interest.” .

State Representative Randy Fine (R) submitted a bill to the House and State Senator Jennifer Bradley (R) submitted a bill to the Florida Senate, which passed Wednesday. The bill would dissolve the RCID and five other special districts that have not been recodified by the legislature as required by law.

According to the bill, districts would be dissolved effective June 1, 2023. However, they could reapply to be recognized as a special district again.

“Disney is invited to Florida”, Fine tweeted tuesday, claiming that Disney is exempt from the laws that ordinary Floridians face. “Today we remind them.”

But dissolving the RCID may not be so easy. According to state law, once the Senate and House pass the bill with the governor’s signature, the majority of owners in the district must vote to disband the district, and since most residents of RCID are employed by Disney, this scenario would be unlikely.

Terry Lewis, a lawyer specializing in special district law, told WFTV Channel 9 that Disney could not use this legal basis because there had never been 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 give in to him having a very public and costly tantrum,” the state representative said. Mike Grieco (D). Hill in an interview.

What would happen if Reedy Creek was disbanded?

Democrats fear that if DeSantis succeeds in removing Disney’s special status, taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties will be held liable for a huge debt.

According to RCID’s annual financial report for 2021, it carries a debt of nearly $1 billion. As required by Florida law, all of this debt would be borne by Orange and Osceola counties.

“So it’s not guesswork, it’s not conjecture, it’s Florida law that says these 1.7 million people are going to have to pick up this bill,” the chief said. of the minority in the Senate, Gary Farmer (D).

According to Farmer’s estimates, each family in Orange and Osceola Counties would likely pay more than $2,200 if the counties assumed the debt.

Taxpayers would also become liable for items that Disney currently pays for, such as road improvements and other mandatory utilities. Battles between taxpayers and county governments would become more likely, such as the outrage seen when Orange County approved a controversial $125 million road deal with Universal Studios of Orlando.

“If they take Reedy Creek out, that responsibility will go to a government,” Sen. Linda Stewart (D) told the Orlando Sentinel. “And the government will not be reimbursed for what it has to pick up and take care of.”

Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond told Florida’s News 6 they are monitoring the situation because it will have a “very significant impact” on ratepayers.

Why now?

DeSantis said Disney was “alienating a lot of people” over its opposition to the so-called Don’t Say Gay Act, after Disney CEO Bob Chapek announced the company would suspend political donations.

Chapek received backlash from his employees for not immediately criticizing the bill when it was first introduced, with some walkouts.

“It’s clear that this is not just an issue with a bill in Florida, but rather 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 it now because they’re trying to distract critics from the newly drawn map of Congress.

DeSantis initially called for the special legislative session to approve his map of Congress – adopted by the Senate on Wednesday – which has been denounced by black lawmakers as “openly racist” because it would reduce the number of precincts where black voters are a plurality .

“They are blatantly trying to eliminate two or more black representative districts,” Grieco said. “They were getting so much bullshit for it, wiped out, so – these guys aren’t stupid – it’s deviation.”

But Republicans are defending the measure as a move to resist Disney’s “wake-up call.”

“Look, there are political differences, and that’s okay,” DeSantis said on Fox News. “But when you try to impose a woke ideology on our state, we see that as a significant threat.”

“Disgracefully, Disney has betrayed us, and the company Walt Disney created – which was a beacon of family values ​​- has now been perverted by a woke mob of liberal extremists into a laboratory for social experimentation on gender identity. ” Rep. Jackie Toledo (R) said.

But Disney historian and author Aaron Goldberg doesn’t think Republicans’ criticism of Disney will stop people from going there, including those who agree with the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

“Think about your average regular family — Walt Disney World and Disneyland is a rite of passage,” Goldberg said. “I really think Disney is the biggest purveyor of nostalgia in the world and that’s how they suck you in.”

The Hill has reached out to Disney’s legal team for additional comment.

Updated at 4:03 p.m.

Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera