As DeSantis takes heat for Disney feud, Florida lawmakers remain behind him

One Republican senator broke ranks to vote against the bill that would invalidate some of the company’s 11th-hour contracts.
The entrance to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida on Dec 4, 2019.
The entrance to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida on Dec 4, 2019. [ JAY L. CLENDENIN | Los Angeles Times ]
Published April 27, 2023|Updated April 27, 2023

Wasting no time after the Walt Disney Co. sued Gov. Ron DeSantis and chided legislators for being complicit in a “targeted campaign of government retaliation,” the Florida Senate passed a measure Wednesday to let the governor’s hand-picked board overseeing the corporation’s Central Florida real estate retroactively invalidate the 11th-hour contracts their predecessors signed with the company.

The bill passed 27-13 on a mostly party-line vote just hours after the company filed a lawsuit in federal court calling the governor’s actions “patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional.” Every Senate Democrat voted against the bill, as did one Republican, former Republican Party of Florida Chairperson Joe Gruters, a Donald Trump ally.

The vote was another signal that the Florida Legislature is willing to advance the governor’s political agenda even as the battle with Disney has come under increasing criticism from Republicans and, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, a majority of Americans now believe “DeSantis is punishing Disney for exercising its right to free speech.”

The bill is the third time in the last year in which legislators have passed a measure aimed at helping DeSantis target Disney after the company criticized the passage of the Parental Rights in Education Act, called the Don’t Say Gay bill by critics.

First, legislators passed a measure to repeal the special taxing district that allowed the company-controlled governing board to charge itself a higher tax rate to pay for infrastructure and services in the district.

When that approach was going to require taxpayers to shoulder nearly $1 billion in taxes, instead of Walt Disney World, legislators repealed the law and instead voted to replace the district governing board, made up of Disney employees who are residents of the district, with a board appointed and controlled by DeSantis.

But, before that law could take effect, Disney outmaneuvered the state by adopting a series of development agreements and restrictive covenants that undermined the authority of the DeSantis-appointed board.

In response, DeSantis called on lawmakers to pass legislation that allows his board to invalidate those agreements. The measures, SB 1604 and HB 439, allow any special district to retroactively void development agreements executed by a previous board within the previous three months.

The Senate 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.

But Democrats echoed the arguments presented by Disney in its complaint against previous legislation, alleging that if the bill becomes law it will be declared unconstitutional because it illegally singles out a private company and attempts to retaliate against it for speaking out against the law that limits classroom speech regarding gender and sexual identify.

“We keep coming back to change laws to fix the governor’s mistakes,’’ said Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton.

She and Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, attempted to ask the bill sponsor, Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, whether there were any other companies other than Disney that would be subject to the law.

Ingoglia responded that he couldn’t answer because of the pending lawsuit, a reply Democrats blasted as a weak excuse.

“Now there’s another lawsuit and now the taxpayers are going to have to pay to defend this lawsuit on top of other lawsuits that are going on, because Disney expressed its First Amendment rights and you don’t like the way they run the corporation,’’ Polsky said. “I just don’t think we should govern by retribution.”

Pizzo accused the governor of having “made a mockery” of the Legislature for consistently stepping in to change the law to hurt Disney.

“This isn’t your bill, this isn’t your district, this isn’t your fight,’’ Pizzo told Ingoglia. “When it’s the third time, it’s not working.”

He compared DeSantis’ attempt to take the property of a private company to the behavior of dictators in Venezuela and Cuba. “This is what Chavez and Maduro do. This is what the Castros do.”

“You can’t say that we’re the ‘Free State of Florida’ if you want to tell people what they can think, what they can read and what they can say,’’ said Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.

Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, said he supported the bill because the contracts attempted to “tie the hands of the board into perpetuity” and the bill attempts to end that by allowing the board to review and cancel a contract.

“This isn’t some tit for tat,’’ he said. “That’s how the media likes to play it. This is pure governance. That’s all it is.”

The governor’s battle with Disney has increasingly exposed him to criticism from potential rivals in the growing field of GOP presidential hopefuls.

Writing on his website, Truth Social, Trump sided with the company, criticizing DeSantis’ actions.

“Disney’s next move will be the announcement that no more money will be invested in Florida because of the Governor,” he wrote. “In fact, they could even announce a slow withdrawal or sale of certain properties, or the whole thing. Watch! That would be a killer. In the meantime, this is all so unnecessary, a political STUNT!”

Speaking on the Fox News channel on Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley urged Disney to relocate in the face of the challenge from DeSantis.

“If Disney would like to move their hundreds of thousands of jobs to South Carolina and bring the billions of dollars with them, I’ll let them know I’ll be happy to meet them in South Carolina and introduce them to the governor and the legislature,’’ she said. “Businesses were my partners, because if you take care of your businesses, you take care of your economy, your economy takes care of the people, and everyone wins. And so that’s the way we dealt with it.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis’ major super PAC, Never Back Down, quickly released an online ad that juxtaposes Haley’s Disney comments with what the PAC claims are clips of “Disney officials” advocating for trans and gay rights.

Meanwhile, Disney has not shown any inclination to leave Florida. It not only owns the 39 square miles of theme parks and adjacent properties in Orlando, it also hosts a fleet of cruise ships and property in Vero Beach.

In September, the company will be the host of the Out & Equal Workplace, which claims to be the “largest LGBTQ+ conference in the world” with an estimated attendance of about 5,000 people.

And Disney CEO Bob Iger told Time magazine earlier this month: “I do not view this as a going-to-mattresses situation for us.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board chastised both the governor and Disney for “escalating the feud.”

“Nobody emerges from this looking good. Mr. DeSantis is escalating a feud with a business that risks alienating moderate and independent voters who otherwise support Florida’s sex-education law and his good policies such as school-choice expansion,’’ the board wrote. “CEO Robert Iger risks further damage to Disney’s Florida assets when its stock price is in the tank. Both would benefit from settling the dispute.”

According to the Reuters/Ipsos poll, the battle between DeSantis and Disney appears to be helping his image among 44% of Republicans while 37% of Republicans surveyed say they now have a less favorable opinion of him because of the clash.

The poll also found that while only 78% of Americans are aware of DeSantis’ recent efforts to revoke some of the company’s legal privileges and Disney’s objection to recent Florida laws banning the discussion of gender and sexuality in public schools, nearly half of Americans say they do not know who is winning the fight.