DeSantis Signs Bill Canceling Disney’s Deal to Evade State Oversight

Mimi Nguyen Ly
By Mimi Nguyen Ly
May 6, 2023US News
DeSantis Signs Bill Canceling Disney’s Deal to Evade State Oversight
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Heritage Foundation 50th Anniversary Celebration leadership summit in Oxon Hill, Md., on April 21, 2023. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed (pdf) a bill that gives a new state-appointed board the power to void an agreement that Walt Disney Co. had signed to maintain control over developments in the special tax district where Walt Disney World is located.

The bill, SB 1604 (pdf) lets the Central Tourism Oversight District Board cancel deals signed up to three months before the board was created.

“Make no mistake about it, the reason why the legislature had to act was not because of anything we did,” DeSantis said at a news conference Friday. “It was basically born out of Disney’s arrogance that they would be able to subcontract around the duly enacted laws of the state of Florida. That’s wrong.”

The bill reads: “An independent special district is precluded from complying with the terms of any development agreement, or any other agreement for which the development agreement serves in whole or part as consideration, which is executed within 3 months preceding the effective date of a law modifying the manner of selecting members of the governing body of the independent special district from election to appointment or from appointment to election.”

The move marks the latest in an apparent feud between the Republican governor and Disney. It was sparked last year when Disney publicly opposed Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act (HB 1557), which DeSantis signed into law in March 2022. The bill prohibits sex education in public schools for kindergarten through the third grade. It has been inaccurately dubbed by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Special Status

In retaliation, DeSantis moved to strip Disney’s special status it had enjoyed since 1967 due to a legislative decision.

The special status of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, located in Osceola and Orange counties, gave Disney near total operational autonomy over the 25,000 acres surrounding the Walt Disney World resort, which opened in 1971.

Specifically, it gave Disney self-governance powers unlike those granted to any other business in the state. These include the power to create and enforce its own building codes and zoning laws, as well as to levy taxes and operate its own utility services. The Reedy Creek Improvement District board, controlled and hand-picked by Disney, administered the special district’s roads, utilities, and other essential services.

The Florida legislature in December 2022 passed a bill to create the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, to replace the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The new board would have five members appointed by the governor. DeSantis signed the bill on Feb. 27, 2023.

But less than three weeks before the bill’s signing, the old board transferred most of its power to Disney itself. The last-minute deal would, in part, give Disney 30-year control over all development rights.

Disney told The Epoch Times in an email in late March that the deal was legal and appropriate and conducted in compliance with the state’s laws regarding open public records and public meetings. But the new board’s lawyers have said the new agreement was unlawful.

Central Florida Tourism Oversight District on April 26 said Disney’s plans for potential expansion of Disney World did not comply with state law and declared that agreement void.

This prompted Disney to file a lawsuit in federal court the same day, accusing DeSantis of illegally engaging in “a targeted campaign of government retaliation” as “punishment” for Disney exercising its free speech rights.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board responded with its own lawsuit in a state court, saying it sought to void “backroom deals” favorable to Disney.

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment over the latest move from DeSantis.

Dan M. Berger, Tom Ozimek, and Reuters contributed to this report.

From The Epoch Times

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