TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature is moving swiftly to strip The Walt Disney Co. of a series of unique legal protections that essentially give the company sweeping governmental powers.
If the Republican-controlled Legislature passes a proposal drafted and hastily debated this week, the Reedy Creek Improvement District — as well as five other special districts in the state — would be dissolved on June 1, 2023. Disney, which employs more than 77,000 people in the state, would have the opportunity to negotiate with lawmakers about what the district might look like before that deadline.
The Senate passed the proposal in a 23-16 vote on Wednesday, with Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg the sole Republican to join Democrats in opposition. The House is expected to give final approval to the measure Thursday.
The push to strip Disney of its governmental powers comes after the company earlier this year protested the passage of Florida’s House Bill 1557, the Parental Rights in Education measure championed by Republican leaders that critics have called the “don’t say gay” bill. The new law prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity and sexuality in kindergarten through third grade in public schools, and could restrict the teaching of those topics in older grades as well.
But dissolving Reedy Creek, a 38.5-square-mile special favor that legislators gave to Disney in 1967, is not going to be easy. Because Disney for more than 50 years has had the power to build its own infrastructure, run a fire department and regulate its own construction, Reedy Creek has grown over the years into a highly complex government similar to one of Florida’s counties.
Reedy Creek has an annual budget of $355 million, and $977 million of debt. It includes a building department, a fire department and it runs its own utilities.
According to state law, if Reedy Creek is dissolved, both its assets and liabilities would be transferred to local governments surrounding the district. That means Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake — two cities with a combined population of fewer than 100 people — and Osceola and Orange counties could be left to assume all of Reedy Creek’s responsibilities.
“It’s a messy ball of wax that would have to be untangled in some fashion,” said Richard Foglesong, a professor emeritus of political science at Rollins College who wrote a book about Florida’s history with Disney. “I wonder if the state is really up to figuring out how this would be done, or if they are just going to put it in the lap of the two counties.”
What a post-Reedy Creek world looks like
Osceola County and Orange County are largely staying mum about the possibility that they would be forced to assume a slew of new governmental responsibilities.
“Orange County Government is monitoring the special session in Tallahassee, particularly when it comes to unfunded cost shifts to local governments,” a spokesperson for Orange County said in a statement.
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Hours after the Senate passed the bill that would dissolve Reedy Creek, an Osceola County spokesperson said it had no comment.
However, Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph tweeted that Orange County would have to take on an additional $163 million per year in obligations if Reedy Creek were to be dissolved.
And that’s just the financial component. Foglesong noted that Disney has essentially been regulating its own buildings for decades.
In the 1960s, Walt Disney planned to build a futuristic city called EPCOT in Central Florida. That’s a big reason Disney won such broad governmental powers from the state Legislature. However, after securing the special rights afforded to Reedy Creek, the company never followed through on that vision.
Still, Reedy Creek takes on a lot of roles. And without the district, it would likely fall to Orange County or Osceola County to inspect all of Disney’s buildings, including “extraordinary” structures like Cinderella’s castle, Foglesong said. Do local governments have that expertise? Could they get it in time?
Similar questions will have to be asked about the way Orange and Osceola counties manage Reedy Creek’s fire department and its water and sewer systems, Foglesong said.
“That’s the question of the hour or maybe of the week,” Foglesong said. “What would happen? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t know who is sure.”
GOP leaders aren’t worried
The logistical issues were a subject of heated debate as the Reedy Creek bills made their way through the House and Senate.
Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, expressed doubt about the legality of the proposal, arguing state law only allows special districts to be dissolved with the consent of the government of the district.
Republicans have said that argument holds little water.
“The bill creates new law,” said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, the House bill sponsor. “If you don’t understand that every bill we pass changes existing statute, I’d be looking for a refund on my law degree.”
Other Democrats openly doubted the sincerity of Republican legislators’ efforts to dissolve Reedy Creek.
“Everyone in this room knows this is not going to happen,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami.
But House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, insist they’re serious about revisiting some of the privileges Disney enjoys as one of Florida’s top employers.
Once the Legislature passes the Reedy Creek bill, the countdown to June 1, 2023, starts, and negotiations will begin.
“The Disney folks will get their legal team together. They’ll meet with our legal teams in the House and in the Senate and governor’s office, perhaps, and start putting a plan together to see how much of this is going to get unraveled,” Simpson told reporters Wednesday.
Information from the News Service of Florida was included in this report.
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