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DeSantis set to take control of Disney’s governing district under new bill

By Sarah May
|
February 8, 2023

Amid his ongoing battle with the Walt Disney Co., Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears poised take an important role in the governance of the former Reedy Creek Improvement District, an enclave in which the company enjoyed a special self-governing status for decades, as ABC News reports.

According to a bill filed in the state legislature this week, the governor would be granted the ability to appoint his own board to oversee the small region that includes Disney's Orlando theme park properties.

House Bill 9B introduced

The Tampa Bay Times reports that under the newly proposed measure, Reedy Creek would undergo a name change to become the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District within the next two years.

Further, rather than Disney corporate executives choosing the five board members responsible for the district, DeSantis would have the power to appoint the individuals, who would then be subject to approval by the Florida Senate.

The terms of the new law would give the governor authority to make board appointments consisting of four-year terms, with members able to serve no more than a total of twelve years And under the bill's language, individuals who have been employed by a theme park or entertainment enterprise – or a contractor thereof – in the prior five years would be excluded from eligibility for board service.

The Times also noted that the law would eliminate the board's authority to construct a stadium facility, an airport, or a nuclear power plant, its power to spend public monies on advertising, and its ability to take property via eminent domain.

Battle lines drawn last year

DeSantis began to explore the option of stripping Disney of its special privileges last year when company executives attempted to wade into Florida politics by taking a stand against the Republican-backed Parental Rights in Education law prohibiting instruction on gender identify and sexual orientation in K-3 classrooms.

In the wake of Florida's passage of the aforementioned law, which activists inaccurately labeled the “Don't Say Gay” bill, then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek acknowledged corporate employee protests by, among other things, vowing to halt further political contributions within the state and pledging solidarity with outraged LGBTQ workers within the company.

DeSantis, for his part, was unwilling to permit a corporate enterprise such as Disney to exert outsized influence over a matter of state legislation, and he subsequently took action by signing into a law a measure eliminating its quasi-autonomous governing status within the Reedy Creek District in and around its Orlando properties, as NBC News noted at the time.

Because of that move, Disney lost a spate of substantial tax privileges it had enjoyed since the 1960s, an onerous penalty for its efforts to encroach on public education in Florida, but DeSantis held firm, saying, “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,” according to CBS News

Reversal floated

In December of last year, the Financial Times suggested that despite the seeming resolve from DeSantis, Florida legislators were contemplating a sort of “compromise bill” that would reverse – at least in part – some of the actions taken against Disney's special status, as Forbes noted.

The governor's office took issue with that characterization soon after, however, stating that DeSantis “does not make U-turns.”

Not long after that statement, a notice appeared on the Osceola County website formalizing the legislature's plan to consider proposals “increasing oversight, accountability, and transparency” related to the district that also includes property in Orange County, confirming that change for Disney was indeed afoot.

“The corporate kingdom has come to an end,” DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said of the bill that was then still 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. 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.”

“A new era”

Commenting on the new legislative proposal on Monday, DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin echoed Fenske's earlier assertion, saying, “Florida is dissolving the Corporate Kingdom and beginning a new era of accountability and transparency.”

For its part, Disney issued a statement signaling that the company was monitoring “the progression of the draft legislation, which is complex given the long history of the Reedy Creek Improvement District.”

Walt Disney World Resort president Jeff Vahle added, “Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year.”

Given the GOP's current hold on both the upper and lower chambers in the Florida legislature, the proposal will likely move toward quick consideration in a special session this week before heading to the governor's desk for final enactment.