Efforts by Florida Republicans and Gov. Ron DeSantis to revoke Disney World’s decades-old governance agreement could force local governments to raise taxes for thousands of residents in neighboring counties who are forced to shoulder hundreds of million in Disney debt, according to local officials.
The Republican-dominated state Legislature is expected to quickly approve a measure in a special legislative session that would eliminate the governance structure of the company’s vast theme parks in 2023. It was passed by the Senate of state on April 20.
Florida officials warn that the dissolution of the Reedy Creek Development District – which the Walt Disney Company negotiated with Florida lawmakers in the 1960s to effectively create its own tax and governmental district for its parks and resorts of the Orlando area – could impose higher property taxes on Florida residents and terminate the employment of hundreds of municipal employees, all in the name of retaliation for the company’s opposition to what critics call the law “Don’t Say Gay”.
“Why do we put the knee on the mouse’s neck?” said State Senator Janet Cruz. “This is nothing less than extortion. It is nothing less than bullying.
Details of the dissolution are still hazy, though legal analysts and lawmakers reviewing the bill argue that voters living in the district will likely end up having the final say on whether to go ahead.
Republican state senator Jennifer Bradley, who sponsored the bill, said the bill kicks off a process for lawmakers “to perform these very appropriate oversight functions,” though the details of the future of Reedy Creek are unclear.
“We’re a year old,” she said Wednesday. “We have local governments that will be involved, and I assure you that you will have a legislature that is involved to make sure the parade of horribles that has been described doesn’t happen.”
The Reedy Creek Improvement District, established in 1967, operates as the governance structure for the Disney World properties at Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, spanning 39 square miles and lands in Orange and of Osceola.
Within the governing body, Disney can effectively control its own land use and zoning rules and operate its own utilities, including water, sanitation, emergency services and infrastructure maintenance.
With Disney being the major landowner in the district, the company is largely responsible for all municipal service costs that would otherwise be the responsibility of county and local governments, including the ratepayers who live there, essentially easing the burden neighboring counties. and placing it on one of the biggest companies in the world.
In effect, Disney is taxing itself to pay the district’s bill for all of its municipal needs. Without this arrangement, another government would have to provide them. In return, these governments would collect a huge amount of tax revenue from Disney that the company currently pays itself.
It also means taxpayers could be responsible for infrastructure projects like road building that Disney is currently paying for.
The district collects about $105 million a year in general revenue, according to Scott Randolph, the Orange County tax collector.
“If Reedy Creek leaves, the $105 million it raises to operate the services leaves,” according to Mr. Randolph. “It doesn’t just transfer to Orange County because it’s an independent tax district. However, Orange County then inherits all debts and obligations without additional funds.
To manage that debt, households in Orange and Osceola counties could face higher property tax bills to the tune of $2,200, according to Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer.
The senator sought to change the measure to allow time to study its impact, fearing that Florida taxpayers could end up inheriting Disney’s debts.
The district carries long-term bond debt of more than $977 million, according to its latest financial report.
“It’s not conjecture. It’s Florida law that says those 1.7 million people are going to have to pay this bill,” Sen. Farmer said Tuesday. ‘first and ask questions later.'”
Democratic State Sen. Victor Torres also pointed to the lack of clarity about the fate of about 400 firefighters and emergency medical personnel, as well as other Reedy Creek District employees, if the district were to disappear.
“No one discussed these changes and the financial responsibilities counties would have to take on,” he said Wednesday.
For years, Florida lawmakers and the governor’s office have enjoyed a close relationship with Disney, the state’s largest private employer, with about 80,000 theme park employees alone.
Disney is also a political heavyweight, sending multiple lobbyists to Tallahassee for legislative sessions and spending tens of thousands of dollars through its many entities on Democratic and Republican lawmakers every election cycle to promote its business.
Campaign finance records reviewed by The Independent found that Disney entities have contributed thousands of dollars to the re-election campaigns of major sponsors of the Parental Rights in Education Act, as well as at least $50,000 to the governor’s 2022 re-election campaign, despite the company’s history of LGBT+ advocacy.
After weeks of pressure among LGBT+ advocates and Disney employees to publicly lobby against the bill, CEO Bob Chapek announced the company would oppose the bill and suspend political donations in the state. .
The measure, signed into law on March 28, prohibits the teaching of “sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade and any such discussion “that is not age-appropriate or student development” in other classes.
The widely drafted law — the subject of a federal lawsuit alleging violations of federal anti-discrimination laws — could freeze classroom speech involving LGBT+ people and issues, from civil rights history lessons to student discussion LGBT+, school staff and their families, say opponents.
Governor DeSantis and members of his administration later attacked the company, sparking a feud that escalated into Republican threats to punish its operations in the state.
In a statement, Disney said the bill “should never have passed into law and should never have been signed into law.”
“Our goal as a company is to see this law repealed by the legislature or struck down by the courts, and we remain committed to supporting national and state organizations working to achieve this,” the company said March 28, when the governor signed the bill.
Two days later, Florida State Rep. Spencer Roach said a group of state lawmakers had met at least twice to discuss potentially changing municipal government agreements affecting Disney. in retaliation for what he called the company’s “woke ideology”.
This week, Governor DeSantis expanded the scope of a special legislative session on state redistricting plans to also consider the “termination of all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968.”
On April 19, Republican State Rep. Randy Fine introduced Bill 3C, the “Independent Special Districts” bill. A companion measure, Senate Bill 4C, was introduced in the state Senate.
“Disney is invited to Florida” Rep Fine said on Twitter. “Today we remind them.”
The governor and his administration have insisted the deal is meant to block ‘special privileges’ for big business in the state, though his latest fundraising campaign message promoting Reedy’s disappearance Creek indicates Disney’s “woke” opposition to the so-called “Don’t Say ‘Gay’ Bill”.
“Disney thought they were running Florida,” said an April 19 email from his campaign. “They even tried to attack me to further their awakened agenda. Now parents see Disney for what it is. And now is the time to put the power back in the hands of Floridians and out of the pockets of woke executives.
“It’s kind of like parents imposing restrictions on their kids – ‘clean up your act, apologize, say you’re sorry and agree to change your behavior, and maybe you’ll get your phone back,'” said Sen. Loranne of the Democratic state. Ausley said Wednesday.
“We are adding insult to injury by voting today on something that was proposed yesterday, by suing a private company that literally made our state what it is, all because they passed a position the governor disagrees with,” she said.
Democratic State Rep. Carlos Smith, the first openly LGBT+ person to serve in the state legislature, said Republican state lawmakers “pulled the rug out from under all these workers and businesses, and really pulled the rug out of Central Florida’s economy, all because a corporations had the nerve to stand up for the LGBTQ community.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond told Orlando’s News 6 that the measure could have “a significant impact on Orange County and Orange County ratepayers.”
A statement from Orange County Mayor Jerry L Demings through a government spokesperson at The Independent says the county will wait for final legislative actions before making further comments.
An Osceola County spokesperson for The Independent also says the county is monitoring the legislation.
The Independent asked Disney and Reedy Creek board members for comment. The next district board meeting will be April 27.