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DeSantis proposes dissolving special tax status for Disney World

Florida’s governor is seeking to undo a 55-year-old compact that helped create the Magic Kingdom

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in Orlando on Feb. 24. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is following through on his promise to try and cancel a 1967 deal between the state and the Walt Disney Co. that could leave the company on the hook for millions of dollars a year in local taxes — and with less autonomy over its property.

On Tuesday, DeSantis announced that lawmakers in Tallahassee for a special legislative session would take up the issue. The proposal follows weeks of public attacks on Disney by the governor, who has criticized the company for opposing a new Florida law that limits how educators discuss LGBTQ issues in the classroom.

Legislators “will be considering the Congressional map, but they also will be considering termination of all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968, and that includes the Reedy Creek Improvement District,” DeSantis said at a news conference in The Villages, a retirement community north of Disney.

A proclamation signed by DeSantis states that “it is necessary to review such independent special districts to ensure that they are appropriately serving the public interest.”

It is unclear what impact the proposal would have on Disney World’s operations. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

The bill to eliminate the special district passed GOP-majority state Senate and House committees Tuesday afternoon. Democrats called it an act of retaliation by a powerful governor that could have unintended consequences.

“If this isn’t the grandest form of bullying that I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is,” state Sen. Janet Cruz (D) said. “I have this vision of a mousetrap that we’ve created, and I see us leaning on the neck of the mouse for 12 months, just to step on Mickey’s neck.”

But the bill’s supporters pushed back. Sen. Jennifer Bradley said the legislation, which specifies Disney without naming it, “is not an attempt to villainize” the company but to reassess its legal authority after more than a half-century.

“They are not governed by a different set of rules as everyone else. They make their own rules,” said Bradley, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate. “Those are incredibly broad powers that have been brought to light.”

Bill sponsor Rep. Randy Fine (R) tweeted soon after DeSantis’s announcement that “Disney is a guest in Florida. Today, we remind them.”

Conservatives want to cancel Disney. It’s not the first time.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District is the official name of the 25,000-acre property that Walt Disney negotiated to buy in Central Florida in the mid-1960s. Disney sought as much control as possible over the land, and its lobbyists worked with state legislators to create the special taxing district. It is one of 1,800 special districts in Florida and allows Disney to oversee its property — which spans two counties and about 40 square miles — as a quasi-governmental agency, building roads and collecting taxes.

Republican sponsors of the legislation couldn’t answer questions Tuesday about whether the measure would leave local governments responsible for billions of dollars in infrastructure and other responsibilities in the district that Disney now pays for on its own.

The creation of Disney World helped launch the thriving Central Florida theme park industry, which draws an estimated 70 million tourists a year. About 20 million people visit Disney World annually, making it the most-visited theme park in the world.

Democrats have long been critical of the sway Disney holds over lawmakers. The company has donated millions to politicians in Florida, mostly members of the GOP, including DeSantis. But they say unraveling the company’s authority over its vast properties should be done more carefully.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D) of Orlando said the hurried nature of the proposal raises red flags.

“I’m all for ensuring there’s an even playing field for Florida’s corporations, but this is a sledgehammer punishing one company because they dared speak out for LGBTQ+ kids,” Eskamani said. “The staff analysis isn’t even two pages long, and this is a major economic shift for Orange and Osceola counties. There’s been absolutely no conversations with any of the stakeholders.”

She pointed out that Republicans haven’t proposed revisiting a $10 million corporate tax break that Disney is set to receive under legislation passed this year. The DeSantis administration also approved up to $570 million in tax breaks over the next 10 years for a new office complex.

“No one wants to close those loopholes. This is not an authentic, sincere approach to governing,” Eskamani said. “It’s attacking one company that expressed their freedom of speech to say they did not like a bill. It’s petty, punitive and performative.”

The current battle between DeSantis and the state’s largest private employer began not as a dispute over tax status, but as a feud over the parent rights law championed by DeSantis.

At least 166 bills restricting LGBTQ rights are pending in 38 state legislatures. National video reporter Hannah Jewell explains more. (Video: Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

After months of silence on the legislation, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said the company would fight to repeal the law, which bans instruction or classroom discussion of “sexual orientation or gender identity” for kindergartners through third-graders in public schools. In response, DeSantis railed against Disney, calling it a “woke corporation” that uses its entertainment offerings to “inject a lot of these topics into programming for very young kids.”

Florida State Rep. Spencer Roach (R) is a co-sponsor of the bill to dissolve Disney’s tax district. He was the first state legislator to call for the action. Roach said his argument isn’t about the culture wars, but about the free market.

“You look at every other theme park in Florida, and they all seem to be doing fine,” Roach said. “They have long lines. They’re making millions of dollars, all without a special carve-out. The result will be more tax dollars for Orange and Osceola counties.”

Roach said he would normally expect bipartisan support for such a bill, since Democrats have long been concerned about Disney’s sway in Florida politics. But because the bill is seen by many as retaliatory, Roach said Democrats are unlikely to support it.

“I think any other year, this would get overwhelming bipartisan support,” Roach said. “But now everything is being seen through the prism of the parental rights bill.”