Florida Legislature Passes Bill Repealing Disney’s Special Tax Status

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Florida’s Republican-led Legislature on Thursday passed a bill to overturn Walt Disney World’s special tax district in the state, a move with billion-dollar implications for the company and the communities that surround the theme park.

The House vote came just over 48 hours after Governor Ron DeSantis (R) called on lawmakers to revoke the 55-year-old provision. It followed weeks of public acrimony between DeSantis and Disney over the company’s opposition to a Florida law limiting how educators discuss LGBTQ issues in the classroom.

The bill passed without debate in a rushed party-line vote on the floor, and its impact is still unclear. A legislative staff analysis of the proposal was only a page and a half long, and stakeholders, including counties that are home to Disney’s sprawling entertainment complex, didn’t have time to do their own analyses.

“People are certainly worried. This is going to be a major disruptor in our community, and no one has had a chance to find out exactly what this will look like,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani (D), whose district includes parts of Orange County, where most Disney property in Florida is located. “Everything about this reflects the fact that we have a governor who is a tyrant who punishes those who oppose him.”

Disney employs nearly 80,000 people at its Florida site, the world’s most popular theme park. Its creation helped attract other attractions to the area, transforming a community of orange groves into a booming tourism industry with an estimated economic impact of over $75 billion a year.

Even Republican supporters said the bill’s quick passage surprised them. Rep. Spencer Roach (right) said he plans to introduce a similar bill next year, but ‘lo and behold, Governor DeSantis has arrived’.

“The thing is, we were able to touch the politically untouchable Disney,” Roach said. “Ron DeSantis, whether you love him or hate him, you have to recognize that his political instincts are finely tuned. I commend the Governor for having the courage to put this on the agenda.

DeSantis began to feud with The Walt Disney Company nearly a month ago, when Chief Executive Bob Chapek released a statement criticizing a parental rights law that prohibits discussion of gender issues in classrooms. public schools through third grade and potentially into high school. Since then, DeSantis has blasted what he described as a “woke ideology” at the company.

Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson questions Rep. Randy Fine about Bill 3C that will end Disney’s special tax district, if passed. (Video: The Florida Channel)

Earlier this week, the governor issued a proclamation calling for the repeal of a 1967 agreement that allowed the company to become its own local government on the 40-square-mile property Walt Disney bought earlier this week. decade. The Reedy Creek Improvement District allows Disney to circumvent local building ordinances and certain other rules, and also made it responsible for utilities such as fire and rescue, sewage treatment, and maintenance roads.

The bill to unravel the special district would not take effect until June 2023, giving Disney and lawmakers an exit ramp. “This is a repealed bill,” Roach said. “A stroke of the pen is enough to undo it. We’ll see what happens next.

Disney has not commented on the legislation. The company, which has donated millions of dollars to Florida politicians, mostly Republicans, suspended donations in the state after the parental rights bill passed.

Hours after the House passed the measure, DeSantis publicist Christina Pushaw took to Twitter to attack Disney’s opposition to what critics call the ‘Don’ t Say Gay,” writing, “Disney is a company that has built a family brand for generations, and dumped it inexplicably to advocate for teaching kids in K-3 about ‘pansexual ” and “genderqueer”.

DeSantis used his opposition to Disney as a fundraising theme this week, writing in an email, “Friend, I will never allow woke corporations to force our state.”

State Sen. Victor Torres (D), whose district includes Osceola County, where Disney is headquartered, said he thinks the company might rethink its approach to political contribution. “I think it’s going to open their eyes and let them see that, you know what? Maybe we gave money to the wrong people,” he said. “They will assess what to do, but when you get bitten by the snake, you know what it is.”

Other Democrats echoed that prediction. “Florida’s fields are littered with the bodies of people who opposed Disney,” said Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller, a Democrat and former state representative. “Disney is certainly the biggest employer in the state. The most powerful politically. Governor DeSantis may be making a good tactical move, but a bad strategic move.

During the campaign trail, Democrats vowed to use the maneuver against DeSantis. At a Thursday campaign event in Fort Lauderdale, Rep. Charlie Crist, the frontrunner in the August Democratic primary in the gubernatorial race, lambasted both DeSantis for taking on Disney and Republican lawmakers for having so easily acquiesced to his demands.

Crist, who served as governor of Florida from 2007 to 2011, said the feud with Disney demonstrates the governor “only cares about himself.”

“I can’t believe he does. I really can not. It’s an institution in our state and it’s an institution in our country,” Crist said, recounting when his parents first took him and his siblings to Disney World in the early 1970s.” It was the happiest place on earth. I don’t think it’s the happiest place in the world with this governor. The Republican governor is leading in the polls and has raised over $100 million for his election campaign.

Local business owners who cater to tourists brought in by Disney and other theme parks aren’t sure if the new legislation will affect them.

Rawlvan Bennett, owner of the Bronze Kingdom art gallery on International Drive, Orlando’s busy tourist strip, said watching DeSantis and Republican lawmakers seemingly target a specific business is “chilling.” He added: “Even if you agree with the positions of the government, you should not accept retaliation against Disney.”

The Biden administration, which has opposed the parental rights bill for what critics say is a potentially harmful impact on LGBTQ youth, also condemned the Disney law on Thursday. “We object to the governor taking action against any company because of his opposition to this bill,” said Karine Jean Pierre, spokeswoman for the White House.

LGBTQ teen rights activist Will Larkins spoke to The Post about fighting the controversial bill less than a month after it was signed into law. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Tallahassee Republicans have said local communities could benefit from dismantling the Disney District. Senate President Wilton Simpson (R) said it could be “an economic boon” for central Florida. “I don’t know how the end will come, but I know it’s a very worthwhile process that we’re undertaking, and I think whatever comes out of it will be better than what we have today,” he said. he declares.

But local officials say if they are forced to take over public services provided by Disney, such as road maintenance, they will have to raise property taxes instead. Disney has an estimated $1 billion in debt, along with more than $160 million a year spent on utilities, which would be transferred to local governments when Reedy Creek officially disbands next year.

“If we were to take on the first response, Reedy Creek public safety components without new revenue, it would be disastrous to our budget here in Orange County,” said Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings. . “It would place an undue burden on the rest of Orange County ratepayers to fill that void.”

Demings said he didn’t know how this relationship would ultimately play out; county staff were still reviewing the wording of the bill and trying to understand the impact. He said it was “obvious” lawmakers were enacting political retaliation. “The devil is in the details,” he said. “We just don’t have the details today.”

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said he was confident Disney would do everything in its power to ensure a smooth transition if forced to use other vendors. services that Reedy Creek currently provides.

“That said, maybe all they can won’t be good enough,” he said. “When you’re used to operating one way for 50+ years and then it changes, even the best companies, well-run companies, and well-meaning companies can run into unforeseen problems delivering services.”

Eric Adelson in Orlando contributed to this report.

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