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DeSantis announces plan to take away Disney's self-governance

By Sarah May on
 January 8, 2023

In a clear sign that he will make good on a decision to strip the Walt Disney Co. of the self-governing status it has enjoyed for decades, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signaled the imminent emergence of legislation putting the state in charge of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which previously gave the corporation quasi-government control of its theme park properties, as the Orlando Sentinel reports.

The development comes after a notice appeared on the Osceola County website late last week indicating the legislature's plan to consider legislation “increasing oversight, accountability, and transparency” related to the district that also includes property in Orange County.

District dissolved

The dispute between DeSantis and Disney heated up last year when the media and theme park powerhouse attempted to wade into Florida politics by taking a stand against the Republican-backed Parental Rights in Education Law prohibiting classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in the state's K-3 public classrooms.

Liberal activists – including many inside Disney itself – began inaccurately referring to the measure as the “Don't Say Gay” bill, and then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek vowed that the company would no longer make political contributions within Florida.

Addressing Disney employees who were frustrated with what they viewed as insufficient support for the LGBTQ community, Chapek added, “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights, and I let you down. I am sorry.”

Not content for a powerful corporate enterprise such as Walt Disney Co. to exert undue influence in a matter of state legislation, DeSantis subsequently took action in signing into law a measure eliminating the aforementioned self-governing status that the company had long held in the geographic area around its Orlando properties, as NBC News noted at the time.

As a result of that change, Disney lost a spate of substantial tax privileges the company had enjoyed since the 1960s, a heavy penalty for its effort to encroach on public education in the state of Florida, but as DeSantis explained, according to CBS News, “You're a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you're gonna marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state. We view it as a provocation, and we're going to fight back against that.”

DeSantis stands firm

In December, a report in the Financial Times suggested that despite DeSantis' strong words, Florida lawmakers were contemplating some sort of “compromise bill” aimed at reversing the earlier actions taken against Disney's special tax status, as Forbes noted.

However, a spokesperson from the governor's office shot down that notion, bluntly stating at the time that DeSantis “does not make U-turns.”

In light of the Sentinel's recent report on the notice posted in Osceola County, that declaration appears to be proving true.

“The corporate kindgom has come to an end,” DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said of the bill reportedly in the works.

“Under the proposed legislation, Disney will no longer control its own government, will live under the same laws as everyone else, will be responsible for their outstanding debts, and will pay their fair share of taxes,” she continued.

“Imposing a state-controlled board will also ensure that Orange County cannot use this issue as a pretext to raise taxes on Orange County residents,” Fenske's statement added.

Lawmakers react

Though Republicans in the legislature appear eager to help DeSantis fulfill his pledge regarding Reedy Creek, Democrats weighing in on the matter appear less convinced.

Democrat state Sen. Linda Stewart of Orlando voiced concerns about disruptions to one of her region's main employers and drivers of economic growth, according to the Sentinel.

“We really don't know the direction [of the legislation],” Stewart said. “It sounds to me from that quote [DeSantis] is doubling down 100%. He is not even discussing a compromise.”

Republican Senate President Kathleen Passidomo said that the posted notice simply “starts the legally required timeframe necessary to move forward with developing a bill to end the self-governance of the Walt Disney World Co., while protecting local taxpayers from Disney's debts.”

Though a formal bill has not yet been filed in the Florida legislature, it appears that DeSantis and his legislative allies are committed to ensuring that the state remains, in the governor's own words, “where woke goes to die.”