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DeSantis plan: Disney could lose power over its special district, while assuming its debts

NewsDeSantis plan: Disney could lose power over its special district, while assuming its debts

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis ratcheted-up his yearlong fight with the Walt Disney Co., with a plan Friday to take control of the governing board for its sprawling Central Florida property and make the company assume $700 million in outstanding debt.

A public notice was posted in Osceola County that a bill would be introduced during the upcoming legislative session making major changes to the district. While not heavy with details, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ staff told Fox News that the legislation would give district control to a state-controlled board appointed by the governor.

“The corporate kingdom has come to an end,” DeSantis’ communications director, Taryn Fenske, told Fox News.

Hints from DeSantis on Disney plan:DeSspanntis: Floridspan could spanssume governing spanuthority over Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District

The potential local government impact:DeSspanntis dissolves Disney’s Reedy Creek district. Whspant it mespanns for Floridspan counties, tspanxpspanyers

The district, through legislation from the 1960s, allows Disney to govern its own properties and levy extra taxes on top of what local governments charge. Those taxes pay for an array of services on Disney properties, like public safety.

The Reedy Creek district is led by a five-member board who are essentially hand-picked by the Walt Disney Co. DeSantis would get to appoint the board, under the legislation he envisions.

After the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a law last year that would abolish the Reedy Creek Improvement District by this June, there have been concerns about how Disney’s enormous bond debt and the services on the company’s properties will be paid for if its taxing district goes away, and whether local governments would have to raise taxes.

The proposed legislation, though, would put the bond debt on the company, shielding the taxpayers of Orange and Osceola counties, where the 38.5-square-mile Reedy Creek district is located.

The Florida Legislature begins its regular, two-month session in March. DeSantis, though, has talked about holding at least one special session before then, and its possible the Disney measure could emerge quickly.

Walt Disney Co., didn’t immediately comment on the latest developments, nor did Republican leaders of the Legislature. A Central Florida Democrat, Rep. Anna Eskamani, did post on Twitter, though, that for the governor, it was a “ridiculous culture war drama.”

“Curious how this’ll stop special treatment Disney gets – seems to me the main goal is to give DeSantis control over a private company,” Eskamani tweeted.

Origin of a DeSantis vs. Disney feud

The clash between DeSantis and the company goes back to last year and is rooted in the divisions sown by the governor’s parental rights legislation, condemned as “Don’t Say Gay,” by opponents.

After weeks of silence on the matter – which drew criticism from many Disney employees and allies – the company weighed-in opposing the legislation, sparking an attack from the Republican governor on one of the state’s major employers and an institution key to the development of much of Central Florida.

Then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek told company shareholders early last year, “”I called Governor DeSantis this morning to express our disappointment and concern that if legislation becomes law it could be used to target gay, lesbian, nonbinary and transgender kids and families,” Chapek said at the time.

DeSantis quickly wheeled on Chapek. “You have companies like a Disney that are gonna say and criticize parents’ rights, they’re gonna criticize the fact that we don’t want transgenderism in kindergarten and first grade classrooms,” DeSantis told a group of supporters.

DeSantis’ controversial legislation states that “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

LGBTQ rights organizations say the bill could discriminate against gay and transgender individuals, and cause a chilling effect against students even discussing their LGBTQ families. Students across the state walked out of school during last year’s legislative session to protest the legislation.

Chapek was ousted from Disney in November, and his predecessor, Bob Iger, was brought back to run the company. Soon after his return, Iger said he was “sorry to see us get dragged into” a political fight, adding, “the state of Florida has been important to us for a long time and we have been very important to the state of Florida.”

DeSantis, though, was unrelenting. He told Fox News after Iger’s comments, “We didn’t drag them in. They went in on their own and not only opposed the bill, but threatened to get it repealed.”

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