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Florida votes to strip Disney of its special tax status

Florida Republicans’ war with Disney is escalating

Orlando Exteriors And Landmarks - 2022 Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Florida Republicans are advancing a legislative attack against the Walt Disney Company’s special tax district in response to Disney denouncing the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Following a 68-38 Thursday vote, Florida’s House passed a bill designed to dismantle any and all of the state’s special tax districts that were created before 1968. The new bill, which passed in state Senate earlier this week, comes weeks after Disney CEO Bob Chapek was compelled to apologize for company’s past political campaign contributions to the architects of the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” after initially resisting calls to comment.

In a press conference earlier this week ahead of the Florida legislature’s special session, Governor Ron DeSantis urged his fellow Republicans to support a legislative move that would dissolve Florida’s special tax districts like the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the Disney-controlled governing jurisdiction that gives the company county government-like powers over Walt Disney World’s real estate.

“I am announcing today that we are expanding the call of what they are going to be considering this week,” DeSantis said of the Florida legislature. “Yes, they will be considering the congressional map, but they also will be considering termination of all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968, and that includes the Reedy Creek Improvement District.”

First established in 1967, Reedy Creek empowered Disney to assume responsibility for a number of services and duties for its Florida landholdings that would typically fall to a local government, like providing utilities and emergency services and issuing bonds. Reedy Creek’s formation played an instrumental role in Disney being able to set up shop in Florida with minimal outside interference and go on to become the state’s largest private employer with almost 80,000 employees on its payroll there. Disney’s employees recently organized a week of walkouts in protest of Disney’s involvement in the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” a law effectively barring Florida teachers from speaking about things like sexuality and gender in their classrooms, in part because of the company’s recent push to move more of its workforce there.

The tax status legislation is now on its way to DeSantis’ desks. Should DeSantis sign the the bill into law, Reedy Creek would cease to exist on June 1st, 2023, and Disney would be stripped of its ability to begin new construction projects without the oversight of external planning commissions.

Per The Wall Street Journal, Reedy Creek also shields Disney from having to pay certain taxes to Florida, which would change should Florida’s governor sign the bill. But the district’s dissolution would also require its estimated $1 billion in bond debt be taken on by taxpayers, a reality that the bill’s backers seem willing to live with if it means sticking it to Disney.

“This is a governor who is willing to buck your traditional elite establishment and corporate America,” Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls said. “And maybe that’s a difference in politics over the last 20 years, but I think that we’re starting to live in this really unique time.”

Correction April 21st, 6PM ET: The legislation is now headed to DeSantis; this story initially said it needed to be passed by the House.