DeSantis Denies Reports That Florida Lawmakers Are Backtracking On Punishing Disney

Topline

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office denied a bombshell report Friday morning claiming that state lawmakers were considering reversing their earlier fight with Walt Disney World, insisting the state will still punish Disney for opposing its policies, and saying the Republican governor “does not make ‘U-turns.’”

Key Facts

The Financial Times reported Friday that Florida lawmakers are drafting a “compromise bill” to prevent Reedy Creek Improvement District, the special district that governs Walt Disney World, from being dissolved in June—backtracking after the legislators were the ones who moved to get rid of the special district in the first place.

The reported compromise would let Disney keep Reedy Creek in place largely as it is but add some “modifications,” the FT reports, with state Sen. Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) suggesting that could include DeSantis being allowed to appoint some members of the Reedy Creek board and barring Disney from taking dramatic steps like building an airport or nuclear plant, as the Reedy Creek agreement now allows.

DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin denied the FT report in a statement to Forbes, saying a plan to dissolve Reedy Creek “is in the works and will be released soon.”

Reedy Creek is set to be dissolved on June 1, 2023, if the legislature does not take action before then, under the terms of the law the state enacted in April after Disney opposed HB 1557 or Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

The reports of a potential about-face comes after Bob Iger was reinstated as Disney’s CEO on November 20, ousting former CEO Bob Chapek, who had sparked the feud with Disney over the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in the first place.

Iger, who also publicly opposed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, told employees last week he was “sorry to see us dragged into that battle” over Reedy Creek, and “the state of Florida has been important to us for a long time and we have been very important to the state of Florida”—comments that sources cited by the FT said were viewed as a good “olive branch” toward a compromise.

Chief Critic

“The governor was right to champion removing the extraordinary benefit given to one company through the Reedy Creek Improvement District,” Griffin said in a statement to Forbes Friday. “We will have an even playing field for businesses in Florida, and the state certainly owes no special favors to one company.”

Crucial Quote

“Chapek screwed up, but Bob Iger doesn’t have to own that screw-up,” state Rep. Randy Fine (R), who drafted the initial law dissolving Reedy Creek, told the FT, saying Iger’s reappointment as CEO makes it more likely “something will get sorted out” on the special district’s fate. (Disney has not yet responded to a request for comment on the FT report.)

Surprising Fact

Keeping Reedy Creek in place could also let lawmakers avoid a potentially hefty tax burden from being put on Florida residents. Orlando-area officials said after Reedy Creek was targeted that dissolving it could be “catastrophic” for local taxpayers near Walt Disney World, as the special district allowed Disney to directly fund things like road improvements, fire department services, and other infrastructure costs that taxpayers would now instead have to shoulder. Unless the policies governing Reedy Creek were restructured before the special district was dissolved, its dissolution would also force Orange and Osceola counties—where Walt Disney World is located—to assume the special district’s debts, which total nearly $1 billion. DeSantis’ office continued to deny that there would be a tax burden on Friday, with Griffin saying, “Disney’s debts will not fall on the taxpayers of Florida.”

Key Background

Reedy Creek Improvement District was first established in 1967 and essentially allows Walt Disney World to govern itself, performing municipal functions like managing waste, fixing roads, granting construction permits and other tasks that would otherwise be performed by a local government. The Florida government put Reedy Creek in the crosshairs after Disney publicly spoke out against HB 1557 being enacted into law—after Chapek previously came under fire for not taking a public stand on it—saying its “goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts.” Lawmakers and DeSantis responded by moving to dissolve Reedy Creek and eliminating a carve-out in the state’s social media censorship law, which exempted companies with theme parks, but did not target tax breaks Disney has received through the state. Reedy Creek’s dissolution immediately drew criticism for the potential negative impact it could have in terms of its tax burden, which lawmakers had planned to address before the special district was slated to be killed in June. The legislature has yet to come up with a concrete plan on the dissolution, however, though DeSantis at one point floated that the Florida government could assume control of the property. State Rep. Daniel Perez (R), expected to become the legislature’s next house speaker, told local outlet WPTV in September that the timetable for figuring out a way of moving forward with dissolving Reedy Creek was “still uncertain,” but “I think we’ll reach a solution sometime soon.”

Further Reading

Florida prepares U-turn on Disney’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ punishment (Financial Times)

Florida Punishes Walt Disney World As DeSantis Signs Bill Dissolving Special District Into Law (Forbes)

DeSantis Wants State Government To Control Disney World’s Special District (Forbes)

Here’s How Disney Could Block—Or Benefit From—Republicans Killing Its Special District (Forbes)

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