Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed a bill to dissolve Walt Disney World’s private government that provides municipal-like services for its 27,000 acres in the Sunshine State.
The measure has largely been seen as retribution for Disney's criticism of a new state law that critics have dubbed “Don't Say Gay,” which bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.
At the bill signing ceremony Friday, DeSantis said Disney lied about the content of the education law but that he viewed the company's vow to fight the law as unacceptable.
"You're a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you're gonna marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state. We view that as a provocation, and we're going to fight back against that," DeSantis said.
Get New England news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NECN newsletters.
The entertainment giant has not commented publicly on the proposal to dissolve its government, which has been in operation for 55 years.
WHAT DOES THE BILL DO?
The bill, which was passed by the Legislature on Thursday, would eliminate the Reedy Creek Improvement District, as the Disney government is known, as well as a handful of other similar districts by June 2023.
The measure does allow for the districts to be reestablished, leaving an avenue for Disney and lawmakers to renegotiate their deal between now and June 2023.
“By doing it this early, we have until next June or July to this put together, so we’re actually giving ourselves more time to be thoughtful,” said Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson. “I don’t know how the end will come, but I know that this is a very worthy process that we’re taking and I think whatever comes out of it will be better than what we have today.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Although details are far from clear, the proposal could have huge tax implications for Disney. Democratic state lawmakers who oppose the bill also have warned that it could result in homeowners getting hit with big tax bills if they have to absorb costs the company used to pay.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, whose county is partially home to Disney World, said it would be “catastrophic for our budget” if the county had to assume the costs for public safety at the theme park resort. Reedy Creek currently reimburses the Orange County Sheriff’s Office for public safety costs.
“If that district goes away, and they no longer pay for those public safety costs, and it then has to fall to the county’s other budgets, that is a net sum loss to the rest of the taxpayers of Orange County,” Demings said.
However DeSantis on Friday said there will be no burden placed on taxpayers.
"People will say that you have utilities and services, and all that. We’re going to take care of that, don't worry, we have everything thought out," DeSantis said. "Don’t let anyone tell you Disney's going to somehow get a tax cut out of this, they’re going to pay more taxes as a result of this."
WHY DOES DISNEY HAVE ITS OWN GOVERNMENT IN FLORIDA?
The company sold the idea to Florida lawmakers in 1967 as part of its plans to build an expansive East Coast theme park that would include a futuristic city.
The city never materialized, but Walt Disney World nevertheless became an entertainment juggernaut in Orlando, while still retaining governmental powers that have allowed it to decide what and how to build and to issue bonds and provide services such as zoning, fire protection and utilities.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District, as the Disney government is known, has been allowed to build its own roads, run its own wastewater treatment plants, operate its own fire department, set its own building codes and inspect Disney buildings for safety.
The district had $169 million in revenues and $178 million in expenditures in the current budget year.
Disney is a major political player in Florida, as well as the rest of the country. The Walt Disney Co. and its affiliates made more than $20 million in political contributions to both Republicans and Democrats in the 2020 campaign cycle, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks such spending.
That same year, Disney-related entities funneled $10.5 million to the America First Action committee, which supports Republican former President Donald Trump. Disney also contributed $1.2 million to support President Joe Biden's campaign.
In response to the gender instruction law, Disney announced it was suspending political donations in the state and would support organizations that oppose it.
WHY ELIMINATE THE GOVERNMENT NOW?
DeSantis has railed against Disney after the company's public opposition to the gender instruction law.
This week, as lawmakers were returning to the Capitol for a special legislative session focused on congressional redistricting, DeSantis issued a proclamation allowing them to also take up legislation eliminating the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
For the governor, the attack on Disney is his latest salvo in a culture war waged over policies involving race, gender and the coronavirus, battles that have made him one of the most popular GOP politicians in the country and a likely 2024 presidential candidate.
“If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy” the governor wrote in a fundraising email. “As Governor, I was elected to put the people of Florida first, and I will not allow a woke corporation based in California to run our state.”
Republican Rep. Randy Fine, sponsor of the bill to scrap the district, said it is time for a change.
“You kick the hornet’s nest, things come up. And I will say this: You got me on one thing — this bill does target one company. It targets the Walt Disney Co.,” Fine said. “You want to know why? Because they are the only company in the state that has ever been granted the right to govern themselves.”