DeSantis slammed a special Disney carveout. His staff helped write it.

The governor has declared that the days of Florida leaders giving Disney preferential treatment are over.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks moments before signing the Parental Rights in Education bill during a news conference on Monday, March 28, 2022, at Classical Preparatory School in Shady Hills.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks moments before signing the Parental Rights in Education bill during a news conference on Monday, March 28, 2022, at Classical Preparatory School in Shady Hills. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published April 2, 2022

Gov. Ron DeSantis continued escalating his battle against The Walt Disney Co. this week, calling for a new era in Florida where the company no longer gets to wield its mighty influence and “dictate policy” to state leaders.

He singled out a special carveout that legislators approved for Disney in a 2021 bill that aimed to crack down on what DeSantis said was too many conservatives having their accounts banned by “Big Tech” social media companies.

The bill was a DeSantis priority, but has since been blocked in court. That’s in part because the Republican bill sponsors added a last-minute amendment exempting companies that own theme parks, a move the House sponsor acknowledged was especially so that reviews left on Disney+ wouldn’t fall under the law.

“At the eleventh hour when the Legislature was doing this, Disney got them to put in a carveout for theme parks,” DeSantis said Thursday during a news conference in West Palm Beach in which he called for ending the company’s “special privileges.”

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is ridiculous.’ Honestly, it was embarrassing,” he added, saying he considered vetoing the legislation because of the carveout.

But DeSantis’ own staff helped write it.

Emails between staff working for the governor’s office and the House Commerce Committee show that DeSantis’ legislative affairs director, Stephanie Kopelousos, was in communication with Disney to propose bill language written by the company. The emails were first reported by the Seeking Rents newsletter, which shared them with the Tampa Bay Times.

Kopelousos’ messages have subject lines including, “Latest from disney” and “New Disney language,” all with various clauses that could be added to the bill to exempt the company, often by tweaking the definition of what constitutes a social media company.

In one message sent one day before the end of the regular session, Kopelousos wrote: “Disney responded with this,” before a new line to potentially add to the bill. DeSantis’ budget and policy chief, Chris Spencer, replied with suggestions and feedback, as did the governor’s general counsel at the time, James Uthmeier, who has since become chief of staff.

At multiple points, the staff director for the House Commerce Committee, Kurt Hamon, pushed back on Disney’s suggestions, including one that would have exempted the website or app of a “journalistic enterprise.”

“So Disney is a journalistic enterprise now? I would say no to this one too,” he wrote. “I like our versions better.”

The messages reflected a concerted push at the end of the session, with emails going back and forth one day until nearly midnight. At one point, Hamon asked the governor’s staff about the “timeline” in coordination with the Senate.

“Yesterday?” responded Kopelousos.

The amendment lawmakers finally adopted — despite pushback from some Democratic legislators — exempted online platforms “operated by a company that owns and operates a theme park or entertainment complex.”

When asked for comment on the contrast between the emails and the governor’s recent comments, DeSantis’ spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, said what he said during the news conference “speaks for itself.”

DeSantis has gotten at least $100,000 in campaign contributions in recent years from Disney. The company also has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars since the 2020 election to the Republican Party of Florida and committees tied to the Legislature’s Republican leadership.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Chris Sprowls did not respond to two emails asking about the governor’s jabs at the Legislature over the 2021 Disney carveout. Katherine Betta, spokesperson for Senate President Wilton Simpson, said there was no comment from the president “at this time.”

After DeSantis signed the bill, technology company groups sued. The bill was blocked last summer from taking effect by a federal judge in Tallahassee, who said, in addition to other objections, the Disney carveout means the law “discriminates on its face” by having different rules for companies that own theme parks.

Related: Judge blocks Florida law aimed at punishing social media

DeSantis said Thursday he’s confident that the state will win that case on appeal.

And he said that Disney’s reign as a powerful special interest should end going forward.

“They’ve lost a lot of the pull that they used to have, and honestly I think that’s a good thing for our state,” DeSantis said. He added that he’s against “any special privileges” in law, but Disney, in particular, has been allowed to “almost govern themselves.”

The company didn’t respond to an email Friday afternoon requesting comment.

DeSantis isn’t the only Republican in the state pushing back against Disney following the company’s increasingly vocal opposition to Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill that critics have dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill. DeSantis has derided the company’s response as caving to the “woke” left, while Disney has called for a repeal or a court ruling against the bill and has frozen its political giving in Florida.

Rep. Joe Harding, the Republican sponsor of the bill, this week said he was returning $3,000 in Disney political contributions.

Another House member, Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, tweeted recently that he’s been talking with lawmakers about repealing Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District, which grants the company massive powers of self-governance including their own zoning, utilities, fire department, bonding authority and more.

On Friday, DeSantis was asked at a different news conference if the district should be dissolved. He said lawmakers are “right” to consider the idea but stopped short of endorsing it.

“The Legislature is going to have to look to see,” he said.