DeSantis wants Florida to end Disney’s self-governing status

The governor is expanding the special session on redistricting to include discussion of the Walt Disney World Resort’s special district.
The Walt Disney Co. logo appears on a screen above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Aug. 7, 2017. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday asked the Legislature to repeal a law allowing Walt Disney World to operate a private government over its properties in the state, the latest salvo in a feud between the Republican and the media giant.
The Walt Disney Co. logo appears on a screen above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Aug. 7, 2017. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday asked the Legislature to repeal a law allowing Walt Disney World to operate a private government over its properties in the state, the latest salvo in a feud between the Republican and the media giant. [ RICHARD DREW | AP ]
Published April 19, 2022|Updated April 20, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Republican leaders on Tuesday expanded the Legislature’s special session on redistricting in the hope of jabbing at one of the state’s biggest and most powerful corporations: The Walt Disney Co.

“I am announcing today that we are expanding the call of what they are going to be considering this week,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a morning news conference in The Villages. “Yes, they will be considering the congressional map, but they also will be considering termination of all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968 — and that includes the Reedy Creek Improvement District.”

The Reedy Creek Improvement District is the special taxing district and governing body for the Walt Disney World Resort. It was created by state lawmakers in 1967 and comprises 39 square miles, two cities and land in Orange and Osceola counties. It allows the company to act with the same authority and responsibility as a county government.

Related: DeSantis embraces Disney battle as part of 'fighter' political persona

Disney can control its own zoning. It has its own police and fire departments, and it operates independently of all the other rules imposed on counties in the state. Repealing the special taxing district status would require the state to put in place a replacement structure. The governor did not elaborate on what he would like to see.

DeSantis’ announcement appeared to come as a surprise to Republican and Democratic state lawmakers alike, with many legislators still scrambling for details Tuesday afternoon.

The attack on Disney came after the company announced it would withhold political campaign contributions in Florida after legislators passed the Parental Rights in Education bill, also known as the “don’t say gay” law. The company attempted to work behind the scenes to weaken the measure, which prohibits instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, and requires such conversations to be “age-appropriate” in successive grades.

After the bill was passed, The Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Chapek apologized to employees at the company for the company’s handling of its position on the bill and said that it would be pausing political donations in the state.

“For Disney to come out and put a statement and say that the bill should have never passed and that they are going to actively work to repeal it, I think, one, was fundamentally dishonest but, two, I think that crossed the line,” DeSantis said after Chapek’s comments.

Disney did not respond as of Tuesday afternoon to a request for comment on the special session.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls defended the repeal of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, saying the House long has contemplated the move because of the many taxing districts in Florida. He accused Disney of “harnessing” its ideology “to control everything that happens in society. That is wildly inappropriate. ... How long are you special?”

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“What Disney did is sort of unprecedented,” he said. He said the state is used to corporations using their power, but “what’s most troubling about Disney is not they had a disagreement with what we did with policy. A lot of people have a disagreement on policy. They used their platform to perpetuate what we believe to be a lie — that the bill did one thing it didn’t really do at all.”

Draft legislation filed Tuesday would give the state one year to dissolve the special districts that were created before November 1968 and have not been reapproved in state law. (A state Constitution was ratified in November 1968.)

A House staff analysis said the legislation would apply to six special districts: the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the Bradford County Development Authority, the Sunshine Water Control District in Broward County, the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District in Franklin County, the Marion County Law Library and the Hamilton County Development Authority.

Until the repeal of the districts takes effect, however, legislators can work with Disney and the other districts to reverse the repeal, the bill says.

“This bill does target one company. It targets the Walt Disney Co. You want to know why?” said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, the House sponsor of the measure. “Because they are the only company in the state that has ever been granted the right to govern themselves.”

In the proclamation adding special districts to this week’s special session agenda, DeSantis also indicated he wanted to amend a statute from the 2021 special session that aimed to crack down on “Big Tech” social media companies the governor said were banning the accounts of too many conservatives.

DeSantis’ staff worked last year to help Disney receive a special carveout in that bill.

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

The bill, which allowed Floridians to use Florida’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act to sue big tech companies if they’re censored or removed from a social media platform, was a DeSantis priority. But it has since been blocked in court. The judge cited the last-minute amendment exempting companies that own theme parks, a move the House sponsor acknowledged was done so that reviews left on Disney+ wouldn’t fall under the law.

The state is appealing the ruling and a hearing is scheduled for April 28. DeSantis on Tuesday said he expects the state’s appeal of the data privacy law to prevail in court.

Legislators on Tuesday introduced a bill removing the carve-out — essentially undoing the favor they did for Disney last year.

DeSantis’ war with Disney started after that bill passed and during the COVID-19 fight, when the company required all its on-site employees to be fully vaccinated by late October. In response, the governor announced he would impose fines on the company. Disney then ended its requirement that all employees be vaccinated and never was fined.

At the news conference Tuesday, DeSantis thanked Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson for “stepping up and making sure that we make the sunset or the termination on those special districts happen, which I think is very important.”

Democrats in multiple House committees Tuesday criticized the rushed effort to pass the bill, which was filed less than five hours before lawmakers debated the measure.

But Republicans defended the measure, saying it was time to stand up to Disney and its “woke” culture.

“Once upon a time, Disney was a great partner with the state of Florida. We once enjoyed working with them. We granted them privileges because of our shared history, shared goals and shared successes,” said Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa. “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.”

Sprowls said he expects the added assignment will mean legislators will adjourn on Thursday.

Reporting from the News Service of Florida was used in this report. Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporters Ana Ceballos and Kirby Wilson contributed to this story.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that a House staff analysis said the legislation would apply to six special districts, including the Marion County Law Library. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.

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