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Guest Column
How about neither Disney nor DeSantis gets a ‘special district’? | Column
How about we just treat this company like every other company in the state?
 
Scott Maxwell writes that "If lawmakers truly wanted to end Disney’s special privileges, they would do just that and have Orange County control the theme park’s governmental services — the same way the county does for every other business in its service area."
Scott Maxwell writes that "If lawmakers truly wanted to end Disney’s special privileges, they would do just that and have Orange County control the theme park’s governmental services — the same way the county does for every other business in its service area." [ HAND-OUT/WALT DISNEY WORLD RESORT | pennlive.com ]
Published Nov. 29, 2023

In the battle between Ron DeSantis and Walt Disney World, some state legislators want to undo the special district the governor created to punish the theme park and return to the days when Disney controlled its own special district for governmental operations.

Scott Maxwell
Scott Maxwell [ Provided ]

Here’s my idea: How about no special district at all? Not one fueled by the governor’s political grudges and run by his hand-picked, mess-making cronies. And not one where Disney has special permission to tax, spend and regulate itself unlike any other company in Florida.

How about we just treat this company like every other company in the state?

Back when DeSantis first started staging a tantrum over the theme park’s decision to stop cutting him campaign checks and criticize his anti-gay legislation, DeSantis vowed to make Disney “follow the same laws every other company follows in the state of Florida.” I liked that idea. That’s how it should’ve been all along. But that’s not what he did.

Instead, he put a group of hand-picked political appointees in charge of the public infrastructure that supports one private company. No other company in America is subjected to such a thing.

DeSantis didn’t put Disney on the same footing as everyone else. He tried to put Disney under his own personal thumb. Ever since, the district has been plagued with scandalous headlines about no-bid contracts, $795-an-hour legal bills and staff turnover.

In response, Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart of Orlando says she wants to restore Disney’s special-district status to the days when it was known as Reedy Creek Improvement District and controlled its own roads, sewer and fire protection.

So we have two sides waging war — one wanting a special district controlled by Disney and the other wanting a special district that’s essentially controlled by a single politician.

This is a battle between two bad ideas. It’s like being asked to root for either Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. Well, I’m not cheering for either one.

Why is it so bloody difficult for politicians to understand that Disney should get neither special treatment nor special punishment?

The problem is that GOP politicians were in such a hissy-fit-fueled hurry to punish Disney two years ago that they didn’t take the time to even understand what they were doing.

For years, DeSantis and lawmakers from both parties had been happy to not only let Disney enjoy a special district but to do the company special favors as well.

Disney would cut DeSantis’ campaign committee a $50,000 check. And then the governor’s staff worked with Disney lobbyists to approve a loophole that exempted any company that “owns and operates a theme park” from a social-media crackdown.

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But then the two bedmates had a falling out. Disney spoke out against the “Don’t Say Gay”/”Parental Rights” bill and announced it wouldn’t be giving DeSantis and other Florida politicians any more campaign donations. And the politicians lost their minds.

They vowed to take away Disney’s special-district privileges that had been around for more than half-a-century but didn’t first do even a half-minute of homework.

Acting upon impulse and emotion, they voted to simply disband the Reedy Creek district without any concern for the billion or more dollars tied up in bond obligations.

Either these people don’t understand how finances work or they just didn’t care, because you can’t just disband a governmental entity and magically make its debt obligations go away.

So then they came back and tried to undo their first mess by creating another one — creating another special district.

To see the incompetence in action, just read the two bills they passed. (Something it’s pretty clear many lawmakers didn’t do themselves.)

The first bill called for “dissolving certain independent special districts.”

The second said: “the Reedy Creek Improvement District is not dissolved as of June 1, 2023, but continues in full force and effect under its new name.”

In other words, the second bill said they were not doing the very thing they vowed to do in the first. Goofy could’ve done a better job legislating.

If lawmakers truly wanted to end Disney’s special privileges, they would do just that and have Orange County control the theme park’s governmental services — the same way the county does for every other business in its service area. Or allow some neighboring city to annex the 39 square miles and do the same.

There are still major debt obligations to consider. So maybe you pass a bill that sunsets the district as soon as all the obligations are settled.

Or maybe dissolve it sooner but create a special taxing district to make sure all the bills are paid and that other taxpayers aren’t put on the hook. Not a special government-controlled district, mind you. Just a taxing district meant to pay for projects in that region, which is common throughout Florida. If Disney wants to tax itself extra to pay for top-notch services or amenities — something the park stresses it’s already doing — most folks wouldn’t object.

Savvy financial minds could find effective ways to do this. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much savvy in this debate. What we’ve seen is rash tantrums and politicians who want to give a powerful company either a special perk or unique restrictions — when it deserves neither.

©2023 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.