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Florida GOP Senate advances bill to revoke Disney’s special tax status

A person wearing a mouse costume takes selfies on April 16 with supporters of Florida's Republican-backed bill restricting LGBTQ discussions in classrooms. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)
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The feud between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Walt Disney Company continued to simmer Wednesday, as the GOP-led legislature moved closer to dissolving the entertainment giant’s special tax status.

The state Senate voted to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a 1967 deal between the state and the Walt Disney that allows Disney to control most of what goes on at the theme park and its vast land holdings.

DeSantis (R) praised the effort, telling potential donors in a fundraising email, “I was elected to put the people of Florida first, and I will not allow a woke corporation based in California to run our state.”

Meanwhile, local officials in Central Florida sounded the alarm, warning the repeal could leave them with a burdensome tax bill. Currently, Disney is responsible for everything including road maintenance, building inspections, 911 emergency calls and sewage treatment at the theme park, which straddles two counties and covers 40 square miles.

“Orange County is going to be stuck with $164 million or more per year in expenses with no revenue,” Orange County tax collector Scott Randolph said. “So they’re going to have to raise property taxes. This is a huge tax increase on the citizens of Orange County that they’ll have to pay every single year.”

The bill heads to a final vote in the state House on Thursday.

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Opponents of the bill say it’s being rushed — DeSantis introduced it on Tuesday during what was scheduled to be a three-day special session over congressional redistricting. They warn it could have devastating unintended consequences on local governments in Orange and Osceola counties, as well as on employees such as Reedy Creek firefighters who may lose their jobs if the counties can’t afford to pay them.

The bitter rift between Disney, which is the state’s largest one-site employer, and DeSantis began after the company publicly criticized a law the governor championed that prohibits discussing issues relating to gender in public schools from kindergarten through third grade. When Disney CEO Bob Chapek issued a statement opposing the law and vowing to work to repeal it, DeSantis said the company had “crossed the line.”

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The unraveling of Reedy Creek would not begin until June 2023.

“This leaves the sword of Damocles over Disney’s head for 13 months. It shuts them up,” Florida state Sen. Jeff Brandes (R) said. “Nobody actually thinks this is going to happen. The cost to the state would be astronomical, potentially billions of dollars.”

Brandes was the lone Republican to vote against the bill, joining every Democrat in the Senate. He said DeSantis, who is up for reelection this year and is a potential presidential candidate in 2024, is relishing the feud.

“This isn’t even really about Disney,” Brandes said. “This is about staying on Fox. This is about extending the media life of this storyline. This is gold for him.”

A Disney spokesperson declined to comment Wednesday.

Chad Emerson, who wrote a book about the creation of Reedy Creek called “Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World,” said an argument could be made for unwinding the special district after more than a half-century.

“If you really wanted to do this, you could sunset this in 10 or 15 years. It is not something that can be done over night,” Emerson said. “This is just so shortsighted. It’s like jumping out of a plane without a parachute and wondering what happens next.”

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