Florida lawmakers OK Disney bills, including one targeting monorail

Republican lawmakers suggested that Disney has had special treatment.
On Wednesday, the House sent to the governor HB 1305 on a vote of 83-32, also along party lines, to authorize the Florida Department of Transportation to inspect Disney’s monorail system, the only privately run system in the state.
On Wednesday, the House sent to the governor HB 1305 on a vote of 83-32, also along party lines, to authorize the Florida Department of Transportation to inspect Disney’s monorail system, the only privately run system in the state. [ JOE BURBANK | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published May 5|Updated May 5

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature gave Gov. Ron DeSantis two more tools in his fight against Walt Disney World, sending him bills Wednesday and Thursday that increase state oversight of the monorail system and another bill to nullify development agreements entered into by the company.

They are the latest reversals for a Legislature that for decades has not only stayed clear of antagonizing the entertainment giant but has benefited from its political contributions and economic machine — even scheduling retreats at the company’s parks, where legislators and their families enjoyed complimentary “fast passes,” lodging and meals.

On Thursday, the Senate sent to the governor SB 1604 on a vote of 27-13, which will invalidate contracts Disney signed with the former governing board that regulated its Orlando-area properties. The vote was mostly along party lines with Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota the only Republican to vote against the bill.

On Wednesday, the House sent to the governor HB 1305 on a vote of 83-32, also along party lines, to authorize the Florida Department of Transportation to inspect Disney’s monorail system, the only privately run system in the state. Current law requires the Department of Transportation to inspect government-owned fixed-guideway systems and systems that are privately owned but funded all or in part by the state.

As Democrats asked why the state was singling out a private company, Republicans pointed to the fact the monorail system has had one fatality — when an operator was killed in a collision between trains on the Epcot line — and several accidents.

“There was an incident in 2009 where a death occurred, but FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) is looking at inspecting this so we know what issues do arise,” said Rep. Shane Abbott, R-DeFuniak Springs, the sponsor of the House bill. “We don’t know what we don’t know right now.”

Senate Transportation Chairperson Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, said the inspection mandate was “a very reasonable” requirement for “a monorail system that carries 150,000 people a day.”

But Democrats called out Republicans for enacting the measures on behalf of the governor as punishment for Disney executives criticizing passage last year of the Parental Rights in Education Act, named by critics as the Don’t Say Gay bill.

“The timing of this is problematic, and it reeks of retribution,” said Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, during debate on Wednesday.

Republican lawmakers did not dispute the charge. Instead, they suggested that Disney has special treatment.

“Every other business has to play by the rules,” said Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, during debate on Wednesday. She suggested, as the governor has, that Disney was unjustly given special treatment.

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Disney was lawmakers’ friend, not foe

It’s a significant change in attitude for Mayfield and other veteran legislators who, for years, never objected to the special treatment the state first granted to Disney in 1967. That’s how long it has been since Walt Disney himself asked for the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District to help him convert 40 square miles of Central Florida farmland into what he hoped would be a master-planned city.

In 2009 and 2010, for example, Mayfield’s first term as a member of the House of Representatives, Disney successfully lobbied lawmakers to restrict lawsuits stemming from slip-and-fall accidents, limit the fees trial lawyers can earn in workers’ compensation cases and preserve state funding for tourism advertising.

Disney has long had a history of working quietly with legislators to get its way. For example, when former Gov. Rick Scott sought to require all companies to check the federal E-Verify employment-eligibility system before hiring workers, Disney and other tourism companies worked with the agriculture industry to stave it off.

In 2012, as legislators were cutting state funds to balance a recession-battered budget, they earmarked $1 million for Disney to work on a Major League Soccer training program. That same year, when Florida legislators wouldn’t pass a ban on texting while driving, Walt Disney World voiced its opposition, then joined a growing number of companies that prohibited their workers from texting when using company cellphones while behind the wheel.

And in 2017, when several Republican members who had been drinking became unruly at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort Spa at an event paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, then-House Speaker Will Weatherford reprimanded the lawmakers and Disney remained silent.

Corporate criticism results in strong response

The years of harmony screeched to a halt last year and many veteran legislators changed their approach after Disney’s criticism of the bill intended to restrict speech about sexual orientation in Florida classrooms.

In February, they passed a bill to allow the governor to replace the Disney-appointed board governing the special district. Then, when that Disney-controlled board signed an agreement that preserved its relationship with the district for decades, lawmakers raced to amend SB 1604 to add a provision giving them legal cover to retroactively nullify the deal.

The Senate’s first vote came on the same day the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board of Supervisors voted to void the previous board’s development agreements and restrictive covenants the former board made with Disney before the changes to the district.

Disney filed a lawsuit last week in federal court in Tallahassee, alleging that DeSantis and other officials improperly retaliated against Disney because of the company’s opposition to the controversial education law. This week, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board of Supervisors filed a countersuit.

The governor has called Disney’s lawsuit “political” and without “merit” even as the battle has come under increasing criticism from Republicans and a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed a majority of Americans now believe “DeSantis is punishing Disney for exercising its right to free speech.”

Throughout the debates this week, Democrats repeated the claim that the bills were intended as retaliation. Republicans defended their legislation but never countered the claims.

“The notion of passing policies to be punitive toward one entity, to weaponize government to punish your enemies,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, in opposing the monorail inspection bill. “That’s not why I ran for office.”

“They choose to break the law,” answered Rep. Toby Overdorf, R-Palm City, “And now we have to rewrite it one more time so that other special districts don’t follow that example.”

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