TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSspanntis’ push to punish Walt Disney Co. advanced Wednesday in the House, while senators approved measures that could ease legal troubles he faces over actions last year aimed at Black voters and undocumented migrants.
The legislation that would give DeSantis control over the board of Disney’s specispanl tspanxing district easily cleared the House State Affairs Committee – over opposition from outnumbered Democrats.
“I can think about countries that do things like this, and they are communist countries,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, “who take over the free enterprise and the operations of a business purely for a political motivation.”
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Democrats filed several amendments aimed at diversifying and putting guardrails on what is to be a DeSantis-appointed board. They all failed.
The bill relabels Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. It also turns its five-member board – currently largely hand-picked by Disney – to one whose members are named by the governor.
Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, the House sponsor of the bill, said Wednesday it ensures “no corporation (has) a business advantage over one of their competitors.”
Democrats disputed such claims.
“I echo the points made by the sponsors of the bill of the need to even the playing field and corporate accountability,” Eskamani said. “My concern here is that this bill does nothing to do that.”
The special district would still have the power to levy taxes, keep its tax exemptions and continue “in full force and effect under its new name.”
Hawkins pointed to the part of the bill that it ends the district’s ability to get land through eminent domain, which he had already said had last been used decades before.
When taking questions from reporters after the meeting, he also pointed to how the bill ended the district’s ability to create airports and stadiums, something which it isn’t currently doing.
Asked what would change that the district is currently doing, Hawkins said, “That I can’t answer.”
Prodded by DeSantis, lawmakers passed a law last year that would abolish the Reedy Creek Improvement District by this June, a move that could burden taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties with hundreds of millions of dollars of bond debt.
Hawkins, though, said the bill would ensure that local taxpayers are not burdened with the debt.
DeSantis declared war on Disney after the company last year opposed his favored parental rights legislation, which opponents had branded “Don’t Say Gay.” The measure bans discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3, or in a manner that is considered not age appropriate.
The governor seemed eager Wednesday to sign the Disney legislation, with the Republican governor ready to turn Reedy Creek into an arm of state government.
“This is now obviously now going to be controlled by the state of Florida, which is no longer self-governing for (Disney). So there’s a new sheriff in town and that’s just the way it’s going to be,” DeSantis said.
He added, “Disney needs to live under the same laws as everyone else.”
While DeSantis’ former press secretary Christina Pushaw labeled those like Disney who fought against his parental rights legislation last year as sexual “groomers” of children, former President Donald Trump raised the same poisonous cloud over the governor in posts on his social media platform, Truth.
Former President Trump criticizes DeSantis
Trump has announced his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and DeSantis, now an estranged protege, is clearly a rival.
Trump posted 20-year-old photos of DeSantis evidently partying with high school girls during his post-college days as a teacher at a Georgia prep school. The post read, “Here is Ron DeSanctimonious grooming high school girls with alcohol as a teacher.”
DeSantis swung back Wednesday during an appearance in Ocala.”I spend my time delivering results for the people of Florida and fighting against Joe Biden…I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans,” DeSantis said.
After the House committee action, the Florida Senate approved in party-line votes two other measures included in this week’s special session: A reworking of a law DeSantis used to crack down on voters who erroneously cast ballots and another that he deployed to ship dozens of undocumented migrants from Texas to Massachusetts.
Florida Senate approves measures on voting and relocation of undocumented migrants
The voting measure (SB 4B) enhances the authority of the state’s Office of Statewide Prosecution to criminally charge those who cast illegal ballots.
The move comes after courts dismissed the first three cases of voter fraud out of 20 mostly Black Floridians with felony convictions whose arrests were announced with fanfare last August by DeSantis.
Those charged had been wrongly told by state and local election officials that they were eligible to vote. Judges, though, in throwing out the cases, said the statewide prosecutor was not empowered to file the voter fraud charges under current law.
Democrats also argued the intent of the arrests – and the latest rewrite – was intimidation of minority voters. “It feels like we are targeting individuals,” said Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville.
But the sponsor of the measure defended the approach.
“We are not here today to suppress voting. We are here today to protect voting,” said Sen. Jonathan Martin, R- Fort Myers.
Similarly, the Senate reworked the law DeSantis relied on to entice and fly 50 mostly Venezuelan asylum-seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast last fall, in a headline grabbing swipe at President Biden’s immigration policies.
The move has drawn several lawsuits which allege that DeSantis violated Florida law by using a new Florida migrant relocation program that actually limited transporting undocumented people from within the state – not plucking them from other states.
The legislation (SB 6B) by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, would set aside $10 million that Florida could use to hire contractors to travel the nation to seize migrants and ship them to other states.
The old $12 million migrant relocation program would be eliminated after it pays at least $1.5 million spent on DeSantis’ Texas foray would be paid. The rewritten law is expected to help DeSantis fend off the court challenges.
Ingoglia said grabbing migrants who may be headed for Florida made sense.
“It has everything to do with Florida,” Ingoglia said.
But Democrats decried the move as a misuse of Florida taxpayer money, inhumane, and merely fuel for more political stunts by DeSantis, an expected Republican presidential contender.
“Do you think it is our responsibility to use Florida money to fix federal failures?” Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, asked Ingoglia.
He said, “If at any point the federal government infringes on Florida that’s when we get involved, which is what we’re doing.”
Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boca Raton, also questioned Ingoglia’s stance that the relocation was good for migrants. “What is humane about dropping someone off in a city where no one knows they are coming?”
“We are sending them to sanctuary jurisdictions,” Ingoglia said.