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The governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, signed a bill last week stripping Disney from the special status and self-government it enjoys in Central Florida. The DeSantis plan will enter into effect in June next year and it will fundamentally change the privileges and benefits Disney has received in the Sunshine State since the 1960s.
The Reedy Creek district was created in 1967 and effectively allowed Walt Disney and his company to oversee the land use, including the environmental protections of the area, and provide public services (fire department, security, etc.) within the 25,000 acres encompassing the district. The status allows Disney to act as its own local government, including the authority to tax itself.
The law eliminating the district came after weeks of tensions between both the governor and the corporation, which entered the political discussion by making it a company goal to defeat the Parental Rights in Education bill, baselessly called by critics Don’t Say Gay passed by the Florida legislature earlier this year. The Governor of Florida condemned Disney’s decision, claiming that the company had crossed a “red line” and announced he was considering reviewing the company’s special privileges it enjoys in the state.
The law repealing Disney’s special status has been criticized, as expected, by the Florida Democratic Party, which has argued the legislation is a move of the governor to increase his own power and that the decision will harm the economy of the state. DeSantis has defended his decisions, arguing that Disney’s special status “was really an aberration” and that “no individual or no company in Florida is treated this way.”
What are the critics saying?
Critics of the bill have argued that the law will harm taxpayers more than Disney. The Democratic tax collector of Orange County, Scott Randolph, has said that the citizens of his county will have to take the millions of dollars in debt payments and the operational expenses of Disney, but the county will not have the ability to collect taxes to pay for them as he alleges the tax authority will no longer exist.
Randolph has also argued that people living in the county can face a hike of up to 25% as a way to pay for the potential extra expenses. The Senate’s assessment of the financial impact of the bill does not give a clear panorama of the effects of the law. They claim that “The bill will have an indeterminate fiscal impact on residents and businesses currently served by a special district dissolved by the bill. Such residents and businesses may experience a change in services previously provided by the special district and related assessments and taxes imposed.”
Randolph also criticized the way the bill was passed, saying that the legislation was rushed in just 48 hours and that state legislators did not have enough time to work out the details of the law.
DeSantis’ office defends the elimination of Disney’s special status
In remarks to El American, Christina Pushaw, press secretary of Gov. DeSantis, responded to the criticisms over a potential tax increase to the citizens living near Disney world saying that “Disney will be responsible for paying fair taxes” and noted that the governor has publicly promised that his government is “going to take care of all that. Don’t worry. We have everything thought out (…) they’re going to pay out more taxes as a result of this.”
The drafters of the bill have also followed DeSantis’ promise saying in the press release that “It is not the understanding or expectation for SB 4-C, abolishing independent special districts, to cause any tax increases for the residents of any area of Florida. In the near future, we will propose additional legislation to authorize additional special districts in a manner that ensures transparency and an even playing field under the law.”
Pushaw also countered the points made by the Orange County tax collector saying that he and other Democrats are “making statements that do not withstand critical thinking or basic logic. Let’s think about this for a minute: If it’s true that the repeal of the special district would hand Disney a tax break, and the local taxpayers would be on the hook for this bail-out to benefit Disney… Why would Disney oppose the idea of repealing their special district? Indeed, if that was true, why wouldn’t Disney have lobbied to get rid of the special district long ago?”
Pushaw also said that the governor has a plan to avoid a potential tax break for Disney, but that the plan will become public in the next few weeks. She emphasized that DeSantis would “not support a policy without carefully thinking through all the possible effects.”
While there is no clear policy plan of how the new arrangement will work, the law will only enter into effect in June next year, meaning there is a long time to wait to see when and if the governor fulfills his promise.
The DeSantis Disney plan is here to stay
The law has a provision that allows for any special district that is eliminated to be reestablished on or after June 1, 2023, which potentially allows the governor to restore Disney’s special status in the future.
However, Pushaw made clear there is no scenario in which DeSantis would consider that, adding that “Governor DeSantis has always been against the idea of corporate welfare and preferential carve-outs in the law to benefit specific corporations. Cronyism is not conservative. Florida is a business-friendly state, and that means enacting policies that promote free-market competition. Allowing one large corporation to have extraordinary privileges under the law, which its competitors do not have, is antithetical to the idea of a free market.”
While the final fiscal status of Disney World and the surrounding counties is yet to be determined, including the specific ways in which DeSantis will make sure that Disney keeps paying taxes, one thing appears to be clear: Disney will not enjoy its special status as long as DeSantis is in office.