TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republicans in Florida are escalating their battle with the Walt Disney Co. amid fallout over a bill that banned classroom teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade.
DeSantis announced on Tuesday that the GOP-controlled Legislature during this week’s special session will take up a bill that would dismantle the special district that has allowed Disney to operate its own local government in central Florida that is the home to Walt Disney World. Legislators are already scheduled to hold a three-and-a-half day special session where they will pass a new congressional map proposed by the governor that will help the GOP pick up seats in the upcoming election.
The move by DeSantis and legislative leaders is a sign they are willing to strip the California-based entertainment conglomerate of a special status it’s benefited from for decades, though it remains unclear exactly how the company will be affected or how it will respond. The Reedy Creek Improvement District allows Disney to build its own structures without seeking approval from a local planning commission and collect taxes and issue bonds.
Unwinding the district could be an enormous undertaking with ramifications for adjacent local governments. Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The governor did not initially give many specifics on Tuesday, although he said that the legislation would repeal special districts that were created prior to 1968, which would include the Reedy Creek Improvement District. That district covers about 25,000 acres in Orange and Osceola counties on land that is owned by Walt Disney Co. and its affiliates. The district provides fire and emergency services, oversees environmental and land use rules and maintains all public roads.
But by Tuesday afternoon, committees in the House and Senate advanced a measure that will sunset the Reedy Creek Improvement District and five other special districts as well as a bill that will repeal sections of a law passed last year that exempted Disney from a law cracking down on tech companies. That current law is being challenged in federal court.
State Sen. Jennifer Bradley (R-Fleming Island), who sponsored the upper chamber’s bill revoking the special districts, said the six districts facing sunsetting will have one year to transition the powers they hold to the localities they serve. The six districts can also come back to the Legislature to lobby it to re-establish the districts, which were created after the state adopted its Constitution in 1968.
But Democrats in Florida’s House and Senate decried the measures, saying lawmakers are putting thousands of jobs at risk and accusing the governor of punishing Disney for standing up to him.
“Absolute power for one person, or one individual to dictate what we do in this process is a threat to our democracy,” state Rep. Ramon Alexander (D-Tallahassee) said Tuesday. “I am hoping and praying as we move forward, as the governor moves on and runs for president of the United States, that we will get back to some form of understanding why checks and balances in this process is important.”
House Speaker Chris Sprowls defended the decision to take up legislation directly aimed at Disney, calling the company’s opposition to the “Parental Rights in Education” bill as “wildly inappropriate.”
“They used their platform to perpetuate what we believe to be a lie, which is that the bill did one thing that it really didn’t do at all,” said Sprowls on Tuesday.
“I think the governor’s anger was well placed,” he said.
Sprowls had no qualms about moving quickly to take up the legislation, even though the bill would not take effect until next year. He said that he and House Republicans for several years have wanted to pass legislation that would take aim at the hundreds of special districts set up in the state, but he conceded that displeasure with Disney among Republicans had put the “issue at the top of our minds.”
Disney criticized Florida for enacting the “Parental Rights in Education” bill — which has been called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics — although the company had kept its opposition quiet until after the bill passed the Legislature. Disney, which employs over 70,000 Floridians, announced it would pause making campaign donations in Florida and the company also said it hoped that the law — which opponents, including President Joe Biden, maintain could further marginalize some students and lead to bullying and even suicide — was repealed or struck down by the courts. A federal lawsuit has already been filed by a group of LGBTQ advocates.
Democrats in Florida reacted with outrage over DeSantis’ Tuesday announcement, calling it a distraction from the special legislative session that will reshape congressional districts in the state.
“Welcome to Florida’s petty & punitive state government. If you question the Governor and stand up for LGBTQ+ people you get canceled and called a pedophile,” tweeted state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando), a frequent DeSantis critic. “This is all a distraction from erasing black districts. Meanwhile, people can’t afford their rent in FL but let’s do more culture was instead!”
Matt Dixon, Andrew Atterbury and Arek Sarkissian contributed to this report.
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