Florida lawmakers have passed a bill that would dissolve a special district set up for the Walt Disney Co., a move that would have huge implications for taxpayers and that is in retaliation for Disney's opposition to the state's recently enacted "don't say gay" law.
The bill passed the Florida Senate Wednesday and the House Thursday, and it now goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature. DeSantis, a backer of "don't say gay" and a Republican with presidential ambitions, is expected to sign it into law. He is on record as denouncing what he calls Disney's "woke" politics.
The special district, called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, was created in 1967. It was created so Disney could develop Walt Disney World without taxpayers bearing any costs. Disney is Florida's largest private employer.
"Dissolving the district would mean Reedy Creek employees and infrastructure would be absorbed by the local counties [Osceola and Orange], which would then become responsible for all municipal services," CNBC explains. "The counties would collect the tax revenue Disney currently pays the Reedy Creek district, but would also be saddled with the district's liabilities. Namely, its debt."
Reedy Creek operates at a loss of about $5 million to $10 million a year, but Disney's theme park revenue largely subsidizes that. If the district is dissolved, taxpayers would become responsible for about $1 billion in Reedy Creek debt and would have to foot the bill for any upgrades of municipal services, the costs of which are currently borne by Disney. The existence of the district exempts Disney from certain regulations, taxes, and fees, but it does pay property taxes.
Some legislators said the bill was an effort to level the playing field for all theme park operators, as Universal, SeaWorld, and Legoland don't have special districts. "People wanted to deal with the special district for decades," Republican Rep. Randy Fine told CNBC's Squawk Box. "Disney had the political power to prevent it for decades. What changed is bringing California values to Florida. Floridians said 'You are a guest. Maybe you don't deserve the special privileges anymore."
Opponents of the measure, which was introduced Tuesday and passed quickly, said it's obviously retaliation against Disney for its criticism of the "don't say gay" legislation, even though many Disney employees and allies considered the response weak and belated. The law prohibits instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 and restricts it thereafter.
"The Disney corporation is being attacked for expressing support for its many LGBTQ employees and customers," Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky said during debate on the special district bill. "Are we really making this enormous decision based on spite?"
"This is another example of petty, punitive. and performative politics by Governor Ron DeSantis," Democratic Rep. Anna V. Eskamani told The Hollywood Reporter. "He'd rather deflect and distract from the fact that he's erasing Black minority districts from Florida's congressional maps and ignore real-life problems because that's appealing to his political base. Meanwhile, every day people are struggling to make ends meet in our state. It's disturbing to see his political ambitions supersede the needs of the state."