Compromise talks underway in Florida Legislature on Disney special district

A key lawmaker denied reports that legislators have drafted a bill providing a resolution yet.
Guests crowd Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022.
Guests crowd Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. [ JOE BURBANK | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published Dec. 2, 2022|Updated Dec. 2, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — The sponsor of the bill to repeal Walt Disney World’s special taxing district denied reports that legislators are planning to “reverse course” and suggested that while a compromise is possible, it could still dramatically dismember the special privileges the company has held for 55 years.

“We’ve been thinking about bills on this since we passed it,” said Rep. Randy Fine, the Palm Bay Republican who sponsored the House measure last year to repeal Disney’s special taxing authority after Disney publicly asked for the repeal of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education legislation, known as the “don’t say gay” bill by critics.

The act prohibits the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in grades kindergarten to third grade.

Fine also denied reports that legislators have drafted a resolution to the standoff. “If there’s some bill coming down the pike, it’s news to me,” he said.

He said a report in the Financial Times on Friday — headlined “Florida prepares U-turn on Disney’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ punishment” — “got ahead of reality.”

The article, which quoted Fine and included statements from Disney CEO Bob Iger, was amplified by other news organizations.

Fine said, however, that Disney’s decision to replace chief executive Bob Chapek with Iger last month, “was a good sign.”

“First, it’s an acknowledgment by Disney that they screwed up — not just on this to be fair, but on lots of things,” he said. “And then second, it’s easy to fix.”

He said it’s easier for Iger to fix the problem because he was “not the one who caused it” and could “just throw Chapek under the bus for this, as he did with everything else.”

Disney did not publicly lobby against the measure when it was passed by Republican legislators last spring and signed by DeSantis, but some employees marched out of Disney’s California headquarters in protest and urged executives to join with other corporations and condemn the governor.

After Disney published a statement in March demanding that the law be repealed, DeSantis retaliated by expanding the agenda of a special session on redistricting to include dissolving Disney’s special taxing district known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

Related: Florida's Disney district crackdown may violate First Amendment, legal experts say

The district has served as the governing body for the Walt Disney World Resort since it was created by state lawmakers in 1967. The district comprises 39 square miles, two cities and land in Orange and Osceola counties and allows the company to act with the same authority and responsibility as a county government.

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But the swift repeal left some thorny issues unresolved. Reedy Creek told its investors that it would continue to go about business as usual because the repeal broke the law by violating the “pledge” the state made when it first enacted the district.

Then, Fitch Ratings, one of the nation’s leading bond-rating agencies, told the state that if it didn’t resolve a conflict over what happens to the $1 billion in bond debt owed by Reedy Creek, the move could harm the financial standing of other Florida governments.

Since then, both sides have attempted to show they are willing to mend fences, but neither is willing to back down entirely.

Related: Now that DeSantis signed Disney bill, who assumes all that bond debt?

Discussions on compromise underway, Fine says

Fine conceded that discussions have been underway for some months and options include allowing the debt obligations, tax revenues, assets and responsibilities of Reedy Creek to be transferred to Osceola and Orange counties and the small cities of Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake. Another option is to reconstitute Reedy Creek but remove its unique power to take over private property under eminent domain laws and to issue government-backed bonds.

“Should a private company be able to issue public debt? No,” Fine said. “Should a private company be able to seize other people’s private property without their permission? No.”

On Monday, Iger held a town hall meeting with employees and said he was “sorry to see us dragged into that battle.”

He added that although he had “no idea what exactly the ramifications are” of the dissolution of the taxing district, “the state of Florida has been very important to us for a long time, and we have been very important to the state of Florida.”

He also said that complaints about Disney’s approach to social issues were unfairly being labeled as political.

“There’s a misperception about what politics is,” Iger said. “I think that some of the subjects that have proven to be ‘controversial’ as it relates to Disney have been branded ‘political,’ and I don’t necessarily believe they are. I don’t think when you are telling stories and attempting to be a good citizen of the world that that’s political.”

Related: Florida special tax districts like Disney's Reedy Creek, explained

DeSantis says it’s all on Disney

DeSantis, who used the controversy to garner national support among his conservative base, appeared on Fox’s Tucker Carlson show to respond to Iger’s statements.

“We didn’t drag them in, Tucker,” DeSantis said. “They went in on their own” and “brought this on themselves.”

The governor’s office also pushed back on the Financial Times report.

After Reuters quoted the story and wrote a headline that said “Florida mulls U-turn on move to strip Disney theme-parks of self-governing status,” the governor’s press secretary, Bryan Griffin, countered with a tweet.

“@GovRonDeSantis does not make ‘U-turns,’” Griffin wrote. “The governor was right to champion removing the extraordinary benefit given to one company through the [Reedy Creek Improvement District]. We will have an even playing field for businesses in Florida, and the state certainly owes no special favors to one company.”

Griffin’s deputy, Jeremy Redfern, tweeted the Reuters story with a graphic that read: “Sounds like Disney propaganda but OK.”