Disney CEO blasts DeSantis, saying fight is about one thing: retaliation

“Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people and pay more taxes — or not?” the CEO said.
Disney CEO Bob Iger arrives at the AFI Awards at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles, on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023.
Disney CEO Bob Iger arrives at the AFI Awards at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles, on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023. [ JAY L. CLENDENIN | Los Angeles Times ]
Published May 11

TALLAHASSEE — Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger on Wednesday accused Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida GOP legislators of misleading the public and singling out his company for “retaliation,” and made a veiled threat that the company’s investment in the state may be at stake.

“Our plans were to invest $17 billion over the next 10 years, which is what the state should want us to do,” Iger said during Disney’s second-quarter earnings call, referring to the previously announced investment in the past tense.

“We operate responsibly,” he continued. “We pay our fair share of taxes. We employ thousands of people and, by the way, we pay them above the minimum wage.” He added that the company’s employee benefits and wages are “substantially” higher than those dictated by the state and include paying all college tuition and fees for hourly employees in Florida.

Iger concluded: “Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people and pay more taxes — or not?”

The Disney chief’s statement came in response to a question from a financial analyst who suggested that the company was “stuck with this fight” with DeSantis over the future of the governing district that oversees Disney’s Orlando-area real estate and asked about the company’s “future risk.”

But if Iger and his colleagues at the entertainment giant are having second thoughts about their investment in Florida, none of the financial analysts on the call followed up.

DeSantis spokesperson Jeremy Redfern would not respond to requests for comment about Iger’s threat. He referred to the governor’s exclusive interview on Friday with the conservative website Newsmax instead.

The fight between DeSantis and Disney continues to escalate after legislators earlier this year authorized the governor to replace members of the Reedy Creek Improvement District governing board with his allies who do not live in the district.

The DeSantis board was renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and its first major decision was to void its contracts between Disney and the previous board, prompting the company to sue the state. The board counter-sued Disney last week.

On Wednesday, the board met again and appointed a new district administrator for the governing board, DeSantis ally Glenton Gilzean Jr., president of the Central Florida Urban League. The board voted to pay him $400,000, $45,000 more than his predecessor, John Classe, who was retained by the board as a special adviser.

The board also voted to create a new code enforcement system that will answer to the new administrator and have the authority to fine Walt Disney World for code violations of up to $500 a day. The company is known for taking meticulous care of its grounds and buildings.

Iger said Wednesday that Disney had enjoyed a “terrific relationship with the state for more than 50 years” and “never expected to be in the position of having to defend our business interests in federal court.”

But he indicated the company would continue its lawsuit because “this is about one thing and one thing only and that’s retaliating against us for taking a position about pending legislation.”

Get insights into Florida politics

Get insights into Florida politics

Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter

We’ll send you a rundown on local, state and national politics coverage every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Speaking out

The conflict began last year after the company voiced its opposition to the bill known as the Parental Rights in Education Act, called the Don’t Say Gay bill by critics because of the chilling effect they said it would have on classroom speech relating to gender and sexual orientation. Legislators responded by passing a bill at the governor’s urging to dissolve Disney’s special taxing district by June of this year.

But that effort failed because it would have cost taxpayers more than $1 billion, so Republican leaders returned this year with a plan to instead replace the governing board controlled by Disney with one controlled by the governor.

Meanwhile, Disney had quietly lined up its legal options and used the last public meeting of the governing board in February to secure new development agreements that would freeze the pacts that were in place with the governing district for years to come.

When the governor’s appointees learned of the contracts between the company and the district, it voted to void them and legislators passed a bill to allow them to do it retroactively. Disney responded with a lawsuit, accusing the state of violating both its First Amendment and property rights.

“You can’t have a situation where the Legislature has spoken and one company just decides to contract out against the will of the people,” DeSantis said Friday in the Newsmax interview, given shortly before he signed the bill into law to allow the board to void the contracts. “At the end of the day, they just have to understand the party is over for them.”

The company on Monday amended its lawsuit to include the governor’s latest statements and actions.

“At the Governor’s bidding, the State’s oversight board has purported to ‘void’ publicly noticed and duly agreed development contracts, which had laid the foundation for billions of Disney’s investment dollars and thousands of jobs,” Disney said in its amended complaint.

“Days later, the State Legislature enacted and Governor DeSantis signed legislation rendering these contracts immediately void and unenforceable. These government actions were patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional.”

DeSantis said that he was confident that the state would prevail in its lawsuit and also proclaimed victory over the company for silencing its opposition to the expansion of the Parental Rights in Education bill.

“They have not made a peep,” DeSantis boasted in the NewsMax interview. “That ultimately is the most important — that Disney is not allowed to pervert the system to the detriment of Florida.”

In his statement on Wednesday, Iger countered the governor’s repeated claims that Disney had been given special treatment in state law.

“This is not about special privileges, or a level playing field, or Disney in any way using its leverage around the state of Florida,” Iger said. “There are about 2,000 special districts in Florida and most were established to foster investment and development, where we were one of them. It basically made it easy for us and others, by the way, to do business in Florida.”

He named the Daytona Speedway’s special district and the district that governs the three-county retirement community in Central Florida known as The Villages.

In 1955, the Daytona Beach Racing & Recreational Facilities District was created to fund and build a race track in Daytona, and in 2014, the International Speedway Corp. and the Atlanta-based Jacoby Development were given the right to establish a community development district that has the power to collect tax dollars and sell tax-exempt bonds.

The Villages is governed by the Village Center Community Development District.

“If the goal is leveling the playing field, then a uniform application of the law of government oversight of special districts needs to occur and be applied to all special districts,” Iger said.

Iger also countered the governor’s claim that Disney has been given special tax benefits as a result of its special district.

“There’s also a false narrative that we’ve been fighting to protect tax breaks as part of this,” he said. “But in fact, we’re the largest taxpayer in Central Florida — paying over $1.1 billion in state and local taxes last year alone and we pay more taxes, specifically more real estate taxes, as a result of that special district.”

Iger also countered the governor’s claim that the company was the beneficiary of “corporate welfare.”

“While it’s easy to say that the Reedy Creek Special District that was established for us over 50 years ago benefited us, it’s misleading to not also consider how much Disney benefited the state of Florida,” he said. Disney “employs over 75,000 people and attracts tens of millions of people to the state.”

DeSantis ally Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Beach, criticized Iger’s statements, suggesting the company’s powers were extraordinary.

“The arrogance of these California wokeists is breathtaking,” he wrote in a tweet.