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Proposed bill, ballot initiative seek to undo DeSantis’ Disney district takeover

The bill will face an uphill battle in Republican-controlled legislature.
 
State Sen. Linda Stewart is preparing to file a bill that would repeal Gov. Ron DeSantis’ takeover of Disney World’s special district.
State Sen. Linda Stewart is preparing to file a bill that would repeal Gov. Ron DeSantis’ takeover of Disney World’s special district.
Published Nov. 23, 2023

ORLANDO, Fla. — State Sen. Linda Stewart is preparing to file a bill that would repeal Gov. Ron DeSantis’ takeover of Disney World’s special district, part of a push to sway the Florida Legislature to revisit the issue.

Meanwhile, a group called the Disney Defenders is making a long-shot effort to get the issue on Florida’s 2024 ballot.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District has been plagued by cronyism and sagging employee morale since DeSantis took control in February, Stewart said.

“I am looking at every avenue possible to get this overturned,” the Orlando Democrat said. “We are going to try to get people to vote and see how many people still believe in how they voted the first time.”

Orange County’s legislative delegation will discuss a bill on Nov. 29 that seeks to reverse DeSantis’ takeover, Stewart said.

She’ll face an uphill battle. DeSantis’ Republican allies firmly control the Legislature, and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo supported the takeover. State lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to overhaul what was then called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which Disney used to effectively self-govern its theme park properties since 1967.

But it’s possible the measure could pick up bipartisan support from at least one Republican state senator who is backing DeSantis’ presidential rival Donald Trump.

State Sen. Gruters, R-Sarasota, signaled in a text message to the Orlando Sentinel that he would be open to supporting the bill.

Gruters broke ranks with his party and sided with Disney in April, voting against an amendment that sought to void Disney’s control over development in Central Florida. The former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida issued a statement that he thought “the people’s pocketbooks are more powerful at influencing corporate behavior than the heavy hand of government.”

The DeSantis-Disney feud started in 2022 when the entertainment giant’s former CEO opposed what critics call the “don’t say gay” law that limits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

As the dispute escalated, lawmakers took away an arrangement that allowed Disney to control the district’s board by electing the members. Now, DeSantis is in charge of picking the board members.

In February, DeSantis appointed five Republican allies to run the district.

The battle has since moved to the courtroom. Disney sued DeSantis and state officials in federal court, accusing them of engaging in a “targeted campaign of government retaliation.” They want the courts to undo the changes. The DeSantis-aligned district sued in state court, asking a judge to void agreements that allowed Disney to retain control over development.

The new Disney-friendly board members say they are bringing accountability to the special district, but critics say the new administration has hurt employee morale.

More than 40 of the district’s roughly 370 employees have left since the state takeover, including several who gave scathing reviews of the new administration in employee exit surveys.

The Dream Defenders’ referendum campaign, meanwhile, has a steep uphill climb to make the ballot.

They haven’t raised any money or gotten any signatures verified ahead of a Feb. 1 deadline, state records show. Wills said Disney Defenders has no ties to The Walt Disney Co.

“Our message to everyone has been we are working to defend the American dream that made Walt Disney’s dream possible,” said Chris Wills, a Miami political activist leading the effort.

One of their initiatives would enshrine the Reedy Creek Improvement District in the state constitution, undoing DeSantis’ changes. Another would require supermajority voter approval to dissolve a special district and authorize a recall election for elected officials who engage in political retaliation.

Despite the long odds, the group is trying to get their message out. They showed up to the district’s monthly board meeting in November and gave pink slips to board members, saying they would be fired by the voters.

They also plan to collect signatures and register people to vote outside Disney World, Wills said.

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