ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — A Florida lawmaker gave notice Friday that the legislature intends to partially reverse course on Disney’s Reedy Creek, though under conditions the company may find less appealing.
Rep. Fred Hawkins, a Republican from Osceola County, filed a legally-required 30-day notice posted to Osceola County’s website that legislation would be introduced to keep Reedy Creek beyond June 1, introduce state control over the district and prevent any of the district’s debts from being passed off to local taxpayers.
“We will uphold Florida law so that no company, including Disney, receives special treatment,” Hawkins said in a press release.
Florida lawmakers granted Disney the ability to tax itself as its theme park empire was in its infancy 50 years ago, when 1960′s Central Florida governments didn’t have the capability to host a theme park that welcomed millions of people each year.
The district was designed around the planned city of the future that later became Epcot and gave the company power to approve its own projects and flexibility to accumulate debt to pay for them, from hotels and highways to nuclear power plants.
The district existed without much controversy until early 2021, when Disney was caught up in the fight over Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, commonly known as “Don’t Say Gay.” The law, which restricts teachers’ ability to include LGBT-related topics in curriculums and in some drafts, required them to tell parents when students “came out” privately, generated intense opposition from Disney employees and many of the company’s enthusiasts.
When then-CEO Bob Chapek finally spoke out against the legislation, Governor Ron DeSantis began attacking the company and pushed lawmakers to end the existence of Reedy Creek, accusing the company of skirting taxes and accountability. His plan ran into turbulence when it was revealed Orange and Osceola taxpayers would have to assume the hundreds of millions of dollars in debt without some sort of additional action by the state.
All summer and fall, rumors swirled about ongoing negotiations between the company and the governor’s office, with few details spelled out.
Friday’s news also came with few details, with a source in Tallahassee swearing no bill had actually been written and discussions were still ongoing.
However, members of DeSantis’ staff told Fox News that the intention was to replace all five seats on Reedy Creek’s board, which had been appointed by Disney executives for half a century, with people appointed by DeSantis, giving the state powerful influence over the company’s future endeavors.
DeSantis’ staff did not return WFTV’s request for confirmation or answer additional questions sent to them, but Hawkins’ release appeared to point in that direction.
“Disney will not have the ability to self-govern,” he wrote, adding that the legislation will also prevent taxpayers from assuming any of the district’s debt.
Hawkins did not respond to multiple questions asking if Disney executives had signed off on the process or had a seat at the table during negotiations to kick off this maneuver. Disney and Reedy Creek representatives also did not respond to attempts to ask similar questions.
However, DeSantis’ move appeared to be an attempt to circumnavigate state law that would’ve required the state to seek Disney’s permission to enact a replacement for Reedy Creek and avoid the debt being passed on to area residents. Since the district is currently in existence through a prior legislative action, it’s not clear whether the company’s blessing is also needed.
An attorney specializing in local governments, including taxing districts, said a court would ultimately have to decide that question. He said Disney could choose to take Florida to court and argue the state’s actions were a violation of Disney’s First Amendment rights to speak on government issues, an argument that has been made since DeSantis’ first press conference on the topic.
The attorney also said Disney could accept the change without a fight for two reasons: first, it may not want to get involved in additional political discussions, especially with DeSantis widely expected to run for president in 2024. Alternatively, the new rules may be set up in a way to allow DeSantis to make the appointments, but for Disney to exert de facto control over the people who sit on the board.
Richard Foglesong, a retired Rollins College professor and author of Married to the Mouse, which delved into the history of Reedy Creek and its relation to Central Florida, said he didn’t believe Disney would simply roll over on this matter.
“I think Disney would be willing to give up some of his powers that it’s never used the authority to build an atomic power plant, for example, but I don’t think they want to give up their power to resist external regulation,” he said. “The danger for Disney though is it looks political. And Disney would like to stay above the fray.”
Foglesong added that he believed returning CEO Bob Iger would be better equipped to smooth things over than Chapek would’ve been, but compared speculating on that to Alice in Wonderland.
“One could go down the rabbit hole,” he said.
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