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Lawmakers Strip Disney of Special District

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By Dara Kam

©2022 The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved; see terms.

TALLAHASSEE — Amid chaos over a redistricting bill that temporarily brought floor proceedings to a halt, the state House on Thursday gave final approval to a plan pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to strip Walt Disney World of unique self-governing power in Central Florida.

The House’s 70-38 vote on the measure (SB 4-C) came with no debate, after Democratic lawmakers staged a protest inside the chamber to oppose a congressional map that would pare Black-held districts in the state.

The congressional map was one of three bills lawmakers considered as part of a special legislative session that kicked off Tuesday.

While the session was initially called to pass a redistricting plan, Gov. Ron DeSantis directed lawmakers to add two punitive Disney-related measures after the entertainment company opposed a controversial new law, dubbed by opponents as the “don’t say gay” bill, that restricts education about gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools.

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The highest-profile measure (SB 4-C) would dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which was created in 1967 and encompasses 38.5 miles in Osceola and Orange counties, including the “the most magical place on earth.” The district has authority over such issues as land use and traditional functions of government including fire protection and wastewater services.

DeSantis targeted the special district after Walt Disney Co. in late March issued a statement vowing to fight the controversial education measure signed by the governor.

“Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the Legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that,” the company said in a March 28 statement.

The bill passed Thursday affects the Reedy Creek Improvement District and five other special districts across the state: the Bradford County Development Authority, the Sunshine Water Control District in Broward County, the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District in Franklin County, the Hamilton County Development Authority and the Marion County Law Library.

Democrats caused about an hour-long suspension of Thursday’s floor session to protest the redistricting bill, with two lawmakers staging a sit-in. After Republicans passed the redistricting plan in a party-line vote, Democrats continued the protest, but Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, warned that the proceedings would continue with or without their participation.

“If we can have a civil debate that respects the rules of this House that all of us have voted and agreed to, we will do that. If, however, our colleagues continue to try to shut down our process, I will entertain a motion to call the previous question and we will vote on two bills. It is my hope that we will be able to proceed civilly and with decorum and with respect for one another,” an obviously irritated Sprowls said.

Sprowls quickly introduced the special districts bill, while Democrats continued to be heard from the rear of the House chamber.

“It seems that Mickey and Minnie have joined us in the chamber today,” House bill sponsor Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, said.

Without any discussion, the House quickly passed the bill, which was approved by the Senate on Wednesday. The House then took up a separate measure aimed at Disney.

The proposal (SB 6-C) will remove an exemption for theme parks that was tucked into a 2021 law that targeted social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The 2021 law seeks to punish tech companies that strip users from platforms or flag users’ posts. A federal judge last year issued a preliminary injunction blocking the law from being enforced, saying it was “riddled with imprecision and ambiguity.”

Arguments at the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the state’s appeal of the decision will take place next week.

The House approved the repeal of the tech exemption (SB 6-C) in a 70-38 vote along party lines, again with no discussion or debate. The measure, approved Wednesday by the Senate, also is on its way to DeSantis.

Republican lawmakers’ break with Disney — one of the state’s largest employers, a colossal player in the state’s tourism industry and, until recently, a major political donor — illustrates DeSantis’ iron-clad grip on the Florida GOP and the governor’s relish for wielding power over his foes.

“Any Republican who claims this wasn’t about punishing Disney is a damn liar,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview Thursday afternoon.

While Republican leaders sidestepped questions about whether the Disney-related bills were intended as retribution for crossing the governor, DeSantis was not so subtle.

DeSantis, who is running for re-election and is viewed as a top contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, boasted about his feud with Disney in a fundraising email to supporters Wednesday.

“If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy,” DeSantis said in the message.

Republican lawmakers have defended the decision to do away with the Reedy Creek district by saying it has existed for more than 50 years without legislative oversight and has the power to do such things as build a nuclear power plant.

But critics of the plan say the legislation was rushed and noted that the district’s debt obligations — along with its revenues and responsibilities — would be absorbed by taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties and the small cities of Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake, without a comprehensive economic analysis. During floor debate Wednesday, senators said the district carries between $1 billion and $2 billion in debt obligations.

The Reedy Creek district and Disney have not responded to requests for comment. The dissolution of the six districts would not take effect until June 2023, which would allow lawmakers to re-establish them during next year’s legislative session.

Democrats accused DeSantis of using his grudge match with Disney to distract from the redistricting issue. The redistricting plan now ready for DeSantis’ signature would help Republicans consolidate congressional power and reduce the number of Black Democrats representing the state.

Rep. Travaris McCurdy, D-Orlando, said he hopes “people at home are watching,” and that the “real reason” for the protest was to prove that “we’re here fighting for them.”

“We know we don’t have the numbers inside that chamber, right? But we also know that people at home aren’t really paying attention to what’s going on (with redistricting) because they (Republicans) are trying to control the narrative, talking about Disney World and his (DeSantis’) fight with the Mouse,” McCurdy said.

— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban and staff writer Ryan Dailey contributed to this report.

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