Florida Senate passes bill to end Disney self-government

FILE - The newly painted Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World is seen with the the crest to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the theme park Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The idea was presented to Florida lawmakers 55 years ago: Let Disney form its own government and in exchange it would create a futuristic city of tomorrow. That city never materialized, but Walt Disney World became an economic juggernaut, and its government retained unprecedented powers. Five decades later, Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking lawmakers to end Disneys government in a move that throws a wrench into decades of symbiotic relations between the company and state government. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File) (John Raoux, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Senate on Wednesday passed a bill to repeal a law allowing Walt Disney World to operate a private government over its properties in the state, escalating a feud with the entertainment giant over its opposition to what critics call the “ Don’t Say Gay ” law.

The proposal could have huge tax implications for Disney, whose series of theme parks have over the decades transformed Orlando into one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. And Democrats have warned that the move could cause local homeowners to get hit with big tax bills if they have to absorb bond debt from Disney — although such details are far from clear.

The measures, pushed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, comes as the governor battles with Disney after the company’s criticism of a new GOP law barring instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade as well as instruction that is not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

The bill would eliminate the Reedy Creek Improvement District, as the Disney government is known, as well as a handful of other similar districts by June 2023. The measure leaves room for the districts to be reestablished, with a Republican legislative leader signaling a likely restructuring of a 1967 deal that lawmakers struck with the company that allows it to provide services such as zoning, fire protection, utilities and infrastructure.

“By doing it this early, we have until next June or July to this put together, so we’re actually giving ourselves more time to be thoughtful," Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson told reporters after the vote. "I don’t know how the end will come, but I know that this is a very worthy process that we’re taking and I think whatever comes out of it will be better than what we have today.”

Still, the move represents the latest blow in a culture war harnessed by DeSantis as he runs for reelection and bolsters himself as a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate through staunch opposition to liberal policies on race, gender and abortion.

“If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy,” DeSantis wrote in a campaign fundraising email Wednesday. “As governor, I was elected to put the people of Florida first, and I will not allow a woke corporation based in California to run our state.”

Democrats, the minority party in the Legislature, have railed against the proposal as clear retaliation against a company that has been a major economic driver in the state.

“Let’s call this what it is, it’s the punitive, petulant political payback to a corporation who dared to say the emperor has no clothes, but if they behave this next election cycle, maybe we’ll put it back together,” said Sen. Gary M. Farmer, a Democrat.

Disney did not return an email seeking comment. The company is one of Florida's biggest private employers and last year said it had more than 60,000 workers in the state. It is not immediately clear exactly how Disney or neighboring governments would be affected if the district was dissolved.

The push to punish Disney came after it announced it would suspend political donations in the state and said it was committed to supporting organizations working to oppose the state's new law limiting sexual orientation or gender identify instruction in the classroom.

DeSantis and other Republicans have lashed out at Disney and other critics of the law, arguing that the policy is reasonable and that parents, not teachers, should be addressing such topics with children.

The creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, and the control it gave Disney over 27,000 acres (11,000 hectares) in Florida, was a crucial element in the company’s plans to build near Orlando in the 1960s. Company officials said they needed autonomy to plan a futuristic city along with the theme park. The city never materialized, however; instead, it morphed into the Epcot theme park.

The Florida House of Representatives is expected to take up the bill Thursday.

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Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington contributed to this report