TALLAHASSEE – The Republican-majority Florida Legislature appears poised Wednesday to pass legislation that would repeal a 56-year-old law that allows Disney to self-govern its 38-square-mile Central Florida entertainment empire.
But the lawmaker leading the effort put forth one big caveat: It’s not too late for Disney to reconsider “how they behave” and rethink criticism of the Legislature.
Another measure, HB 5, also most certain to pass the Legislature, would strip Disney of special protections from social media regulations approved last year and now tied up in court.
The debate over the legislation came just hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he wanted lawmakers to consider repealing the governing structure for Disney’s Florida properties, a move viewed as punishment against Disney for speaking out against the “Parental Rights in Education Act” – one that critics have labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
The law forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. Lawmakers approved it in March. This month, DeSantis signed it into law.
When Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek vowed to repeal the new law, DeSantis said he crossed a line and does not “control this state.”
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Tuesday’s committee hearing to review the Disney-related bills turned into a culture war battlefield. Democrats complained they were disgusted by the proposal. Republicans countered they were disgusted by Disney’s behavior.
What do bills do to Disney’s special district?
At issue is the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special district created in 1967 that provides Disney with unprecedented taxing and regulatory authority to build an entertainment empire that has grown into the world’s No. 1 tourism attraction.
Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard, is carrying the bill, HB 3, to dissolve Reedy Creek and five other districts that are out of compliance with a 1997 law requiring them to seek recodification from the Legislature. Earlier in the day, he tweeted that his bill was to “remind” Disney that it’s a “guest in Florida.”
Fine said that the bill gives Disney more than a year to reorganize the district and to rethink its criticism of Florida laws. It would go into effect June 1, 2023.
“And if I wanted special privileges from the state — when my 14-year-old asks for special privileges, when my 10-year-old wants special privileges, they consider how they behave,” said Fine.
That two of Florida’s most powerful political entities are at odds seems unparalleled in recent political history.
Walt Disney Co. is a prime economic engine for Florida. The sales tax collected on Disney World tickets in 2018 totaled more than $409 million — more than the entire Florida Department of Elder Affairs budget.
The company employs more than 80,000 Floridians and Oxford Economics found at least 400,000 jobs can be traced to the $75 billion annual economic impact produced by its theme parks and resorts.
Walt Disney Co. did not respond to a request for a comment about HB 3.
Florida lawmakers react to the bills
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, led the opposition to Fine’s proposal in the committee hearing.
“We’re pulling the rug out from underneath the Central Florida economy because one business had the gall to stand up for the LGBTQ community,” said Smith.
When committee chair Rep. Ralph Massulo, R-Lecanto, moved to cut him off for lack of time, Smith complained that there was only one member of the public in attendance because the bill was filed without notice earlier that day.
“I’m disgusted by this proposal. And I look around, and I see other members of the committee who have no questions, will not debate and will just hit the (yes) button and do as they’re told,” said Smith.
Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, said Disney’s CEO betrayed Florida when he vowed to support the repeal of the parent rights education bill restricting classroom discussions on sex and gender.
“The company that Walt Disney started was a beacon of family values. And that has now been perverted by woke mob of liberal extremists into a laboratory of gender identity, social experimentation in which our children are the guinea pigs,” said Toledo. “As a mother, I’m offended by this … and I’m offended by my colleagues that are offended by what we’re doing and not by what Disney is doing to our children.”
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Tampa, said Fine’s bill shows that DeSantis and Republicans are willing “to buck the traditional elite establishment in corporate America.”
“They’re trying to control everything that happens in society, and that’s wildly inappropriate,” said Sprowls.
And Rep. Spenser Roach, R-Fort Myers, points out that more than $200 million in taxes now collected by Reedy Creek will be “reallocated” to Orange and Osceola counties.
“You’ve got affordable housing issues. You’ve got veterans sleeping on the street, you got education issues, and roads that need to be fixed,” explained Roach as the committee gathered to debate the bill.
“Those taxpayers can benefit from that money and right now that money has been siphoned away from those taxpayers by Disney,” said Roach.
Smith and other Democrats like Rep. Dan Daley, D-Sunrise, said they are willing to have a conversation about corporations paying taxes, but that is not what is happening with HB 3.
“Let’s be honest, the intent of this bill doesn’t have anything to do with tax revenue for the county or any other municipality for that matter. It’s about getting back at Disney for them stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, we’re not just going to take this on the chin. We have a voice and we’re going to exercise that voice whether Ron DeSantis likes it or not,” said Daley.
Both HB 3 and HB5, and their Senate companion were introduced and cleared their committee stops Tuesday and were introduced to their respective chambers Wednesday.
The Senate approved SB 4, an identical version of HB 3, on a 23-16 party-line vote. The House is expected to vote on the measure Thursday.
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee