Florida legislators vote to dissolve Disney’s governing agreement after ‘Don’t Say Gay’ fallout

Within days of its introduction, GOP lawmakers approve measure to undo decades-old municipal district, as officials try to answer what happens next

Related video: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs controversial ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill into law on 28 March

Florida’s Republican-controlled state legislature approved a measure to dissolve the Walt Disney Company’s governing agreement with the state, potentially ending a decades-old deal that allowed the company to manage and tax its sprawling theme park and resort properties following its opposition to what opponents have called the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.

During a special legislative session convened to redraw the state’s redistricting plans, Florida’s House of Representatives gave final passage on 21 April to a measure that sets up the dissolve of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the governing structure for Disney’s Orlando-area properties.

The move hands Republican Governor Ron DeSantis a victory in his ongoing feud with the corporate giant – the state’s largest private employer, with roughly 80,000 employees – and an economic engine and political heavyweight that has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to state legislators, including at least $50,000 to the governor’s re-election campaign.

It upends years of cozy relationships between the company and Republican legislators and also could create massive tax and financial headaches for residents that could absorb Disney’s bond debt, as legislators work to untangle what happens next before the district’s dissolve takes effect in 2023.

Following weeks of pressure among LGBT+ advocates and Disney employees to publicly lobby against the GOP-backed Parental Rights in Education Act, Disney CEO Bob Chapek announced that the company would oppose the bill and suspend its political donations in the state.

The measure, which Governor DeSantis signed into law on 28 March, prohibits instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten through the third grade and any such discussion “that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students” in other grades.

The broadly written law – the subject of a federal lawsuit claiming violations of federal antidiscrimination statutes – could freeze classroom speech involving LGBT+ people and issues, from civil rights history lessons to discussion of LGBT+ students, school staff and their families, according to opponents.

“Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down by the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organisations working to achieve that,” Disney said after the governor signed the bill last month.

Two days later, Florida state Rep Spencer Roach said a group of state legislators met at least twice to discuss potentially changing municipal government agreements affecting Disney in retaliation for what he called the company’s “woke ideology.”

In a campaign fundraising email to supporters this week, Governor DeSantis said “Disney and other woke corporations won’t get away with peddling their unchecked pressure campaigns any longer.”

“They even tried to attack me to advance their woke agenda,” the email said. “And now is the time to put the power back in the hands of Floridians and out of the pockets of woke executives.”

The Reedy Creek Improvement District, implemented in 1967, operates as the governing structure for Disney properties in Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, spanning 39 square miles and land across Orange and Osceola counties.

Through the district, Disney effectively controls its land use and zoning rules and operates its own public services, including water, sanitation, emergency services and infrastructure maintenance, by levying taxes on itself through the district board.

Democratic legislators in Florida have warned that without the district, taxpayers in neighbouring counties would inherit tens of millions of dollars in Disney’s bond debt through potentially massive tax bills, though the details are murky.

The Independent has requested comment from Disney.

A statement from a spokesperson for Osceola County to The Independent says the government will study the bill “to understand the impacts in preparation for this going into effect, including evaluating any shifts in cost to Osceola as a result.”

“As Disney and Reedy Creek have been self-contained, we are uncertain of what fiscal responsibilities will be encumbered after June 2023,” according to the statement. “Over the many years, Disney has been a strong community partner and we expect that relationship to continue as we work together for a transition plan.”

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said if the county were to “take over the first response and public safety components for Reedy Creek with no new revenue, that would be catastrophic for our budget in Orange County.”

“It would put an undue burden on the rest of the taxpayers in Orange County, to fill that gap,” he said. “I believe they have not adequately contemplated the ramifications of what they have proposed at this point ... It’s obvious this is political retribution that is at play here.”

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