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DeSantis says Florida may take over Disney’s special district

The governor did not release details but said the move would not raise taxes

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) at a news conference in Sanford on May 16. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP)
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday that the state is likely to take over Walt Disney World’s special taxing district, removing the power the company has had to regulate much of what goes on within the 25,000 acres company founder Walt Disney purchased more than half a century ago.

DeSantis (R) didn’t give specifics but scoffed at some local government officials’ concern that taxpayers would be on the hook for the $766 million bond debt Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District owes. He said that for local governments, “it’d be a cash cow for them if they had Disney.” He added that it’s “more likely that the state will simply assume control and make sure that we’re able to impose the law and make sure we’re collecting the taxes.”

The dissolution of Reedy Creek is set for June 2023.

“People who criticize me saying you’re punishing Disney are also saying we’re going to relieve Disney of $766 million in debt? How would that be a punishment?” DeSantis said at a news conference in Sanford. “It makes no sense that that would be the case.”

The Republican-led Florida legislature passed a bill on April 21 that would cancel the special tax district of Walt Disney World in the state. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

DeSantis’s staff said the details of the plan are still being worked on.

“I can tell you this: That debt will not end up going to any of these local governments,” DeSantis said. “It’s not going to go to the state government either. It’s going to absolutely be dealt with, with the taxpayers who are currently in that district, and we’re going to have a proposal to kind of make sure that that’s clear, and that is 100 percent.”

The taxpayers in the district are Disney and the fewer than 60 people who live within two cities the company created within Reedy Creek. Disney taxes itself at three times the rate permitted by local governments, which allows it to collect and pay itself about $163 million a year to keep its theme parks and hotels running.

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo-Smith (D), who represents parts of Orange County, called DeSantis’s comments “an alarming turn of events.”

“This is the DeSantis administration openly saying they plan to seize control of a local government for opposing his extreme agenda,” Guillermo-Smith said. “The gravity of what we’re seeing happening in front of us should be a warning sign to all Americans and to all Floridians.”

DeSantis’s comments Monday are the closest he has come to explaining how legislation he proposed last month to unravel the district will be implemented. After Disney criticized the bill, the governor told lawmakers that he wanted them to reverse a 1967 law that allowed Disney to build the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and other attractions in Central Florida by creating Reedy Creek as a quasi-governmental agency. Florida has more than 1,800 special improvement districts, but few are as old as Reedy Creek, and none have as much latitude over their property.

The GOP-led legislature passed the bill dissolving Reedy Creek that DeSantis wanted without a detailed analysis of the proposal and without any public comment. The governor signed it into law four days after he proposed it. That hurried process has left stakeholders confused, Guillermo-Smith said.

Reedy Creek pushed back against the law last month, citing the state’s decades-old “pledge” to the district.

The dissolution of Reedy Creek is the result of a feud that began in March when Disney chief executive Bob Chapek criticized a new Florida law that prohibits instruction or classroom discussion of “sexual orientation or gender identity” for kindergartners through third-graders in public schools. It also empowers parents to sue school districts over teachings they don’t like. The Parental Rights in Education bill was one of DeSantis’s top priorities in this year’s legislative session.

Critics dubbed it the “don’t say gay” law, and when Disney promised to work to repeal the legislation, DeSantis took aim at the company.

Disney employs more than 70,000 people in Florida and is the most-visited theme park in the world.

Communications directors for Disney and Reedy Creek did not respond to requests for comment on DeSantis’s statement.

Disney pledged its support for the LGBTQ community in a company statement Monday, saying all profits from its special Pride collection during June will go to support LGBTQ groups.