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Florida Residents Sue Gov. Ron DeSantis Over Disney Debt

Gov. Ron DeSantis
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

An act of retaliation against Disney for opposing the "don't say gay" law could saddle the state's citizens with a $1 billion bill.

Three Florida residents claim that the state's governor, Ron DeSantis, violated the rights of taxpayers when he revoked Disney's self-governing status. For this, they're taking him to court.

Michael Foronda, Edward Foronda, and Vivian Gorsky, who live near Walt Disney World, say that they and their fellow taxpayers will be saddled with $1 billion in debt due to the state's vote to revoke Disney's self-governing status. "Plaintiffs, who are property owners in the surrounding counties, fear that they will now have to assume the tax burden that Disney previously assumed under the special tax status," according to Courthouse News.

The Republican-led Florida legislature voted to roll back Disney's special status and DeSantis signed the bill (SB 4C) into law shortly after, all in retaliation for the company speaking out in opposition of the state's "don't say gay" law (HB 1557) and its pledge to end political donations.

The lawsuit points to how this decision to remove Disney's special status is based on retaliation. It claims DeSantis "intended to punish Disney for a First Amendment-protected ground of free speech" which "directly resulted in a violation of plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process of law."

The new law will end independent special districts created before 1968, which includes the Reedy Creek Improvement District inside Walt Disney World, in summer 2023 unless a new agreement is struck. Within the 39-square-mile district, Disney was allowed to self-govern and operate municipal services, which included both its police and fire departments. With the dissolution of the agreement, taxpayers are now on the hook for the estimated $58 million annually needed to pay for those services -- a financial burden that's likely to raise local property taxes upwards of 20 to 25 percent. This doesn't include bonds issued by Disney worth more than $1 billion. By ending the agreement, Florida (and its taxpayers) are now responsible for that debt as well.

Disney has yet to comment on the lawsuit, although the Reedy Creek Improvement District issued a statement to its bondholders last week pointing out that, according to the law establishing the special district, all the debts must be paid before its status can be changed, Courthouse News reports.

"In light of the state of Florida's pledge to the district's bondholders, Reedy Creek expects to explore its options while continuing its present operations, including levying and collecting its ad valorem taxes and collecting its utility revenues, paying debt service on its ad valorem tax bonds and utility revenue bonds, complying with its bond covenants and operating and maintaining its properties," the statement read.

DeSantis' camp has also largely remained silent, except for a tweet sent by his spokesperson, Christina Pushaw -- who previously called those against the state's "don't say gay" law groomers -- stating that Florida taxpayers wouldn't be responsible for the debt, and claiming any statements to the contrary are simply a "partisan political lie."

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