Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a measure to strip Walt Disney Co. of its self-governance privileges in the state, escalating a feud between Governor Ron DeSantis and the entertainment giant.
The legislation, which could lead to the dissolution of the Reedy Creek Improvement District created in 1967 in parts of Orange and Osceola counties to allow Disney to carry out certain municipal functions on its own, was approved by the House of Representatives in a 70-38 vote. It was approved by the Senate on Wednesday and now goes to DeSantis for his signature.
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“This is political retribution that is at play here,” Jerry Demings, the Democratic mayor of Orange County said Thursday ahead of the vote, adding that Disney had a great partnership with the local community. “We’re trying to understand what the legislature truly is trying to do in this case, but I believe they have not adequately contemplated the ramifications of what they have proposed at this point.”
The whirlwind legislative action could have major consequences for Disney, which has had to maneuver a heated dispute with DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, after the company criticized a law he backed that limits school instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation.
The action raised questions by Democratic lawmakers about the need for the rushed action and who will be on the hook for paying back about $1 billion in municipal bonds.
“This legislature has become the puppet to the governor, and I think it’s political theater at worst,” State Senator Lori Berman said Wednesday ahead of the Senate vote, criticizing the hasty nature of the passing. “I feel like I’m living in an alternative reality.”
The legislation calls for six special districts in the state to be dissolved as of June 1, 2023, barring any further legislative action. Under current Florida statutes, the debts and assets of a special district that is dissolved would be passed to the municipal government that takes over.
Reedy Creek said in a statement Thursday that the State of Florida had promised to fulfill the terms of any agreement made with bondholders.
Republicans argued in the debate ahead of the law’s passing that they would have over a year to address any issues that might come up. Democrats said there was no guarantee that further action would be taken.
Richard Foglesong, a historian and political scientist who wrote a book about Disney’s history in Florida, said Disney now had to navigate a very complex balancing act, with “something to lose on both sides.”
“I expect them to defend themselves without being overtly partisan,” he said in an interview when asked how he thought Disney would respond. “And I think that’s advisable for them to do.”
–With assistance from Danielle Moran.