Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the Republican-led legislature are threatening to revoke Disney’s decades-old special zoning agreement with the state because Disney dared to criticize his Don’t Say Gay law. The move could backfire.
On Monday, DeSantis announced that the state legislature’s special session will discuss terminating all special districts enacted in Florida before 1968, including Disney’s 39-square mile Reedy Creek Improvement District. Earlier today, the Republican-led Senate voted 23 to 16 to end the deal.
The district contains land in Orange and Osceola counties. The special agreement allows Disney to operate the area like its own county: operating its own zoning laws, providing its own municipal services, and maintaining building codes, police and fire departments. Disney’s district also gets special government treatment and tax benefits.
The move could backfire for several reasons. No other legislators — Republican or Democrat — knew any specifics about DeSantis’s plan when questioned about it. Even DeSantis himself hasn’t released any concrete details of what he’d like to see.
Most importantly, Disney World creates 463,000 jobs and brings an estimated $5.8 billion of revenue into the state each year, accounting for $75.2 billion of economic activity in the state annually, according to The Tallahassee Democrat. The numbers give the company a huge political influence in the state.
If the Republicans withdraw Disney’s special status, it’ll create a bureaucratic headache as locals scramble to elect local officials and legislators suddenly have to tackle the traffic and other problems. If Republicans antagonize Disney into withdrawing even parts of its business from the state, it could tarnish their reputation as pro-business advocates and harm them in the upcoming midterm elections.
Last, there’s the unresolved issue of Disney’s bond debt. Disney has about $2 billion in bond debt, according to the Miami Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas, which lawmakers said would presumably be assumed by Orange and Osceola Counties. According to state Sen. Gary Farmer (D), that’s about $2,200 in taxes per family in those counties.
“My concern is this bill essentially wipes away Disney’s $2 billion of debt,” said state Sen. Jeffrey Brandes (R) during the debate. “If the legislative intent here is ultimately to attack them, then why would we want to cancel $2 billion of debt?”
Democratic Florida Representative Anna Eskamani said the Republicans’ move is likely a way to distract from the real reason behind Florida’s special legislative session: the approval of new Republican election maps that would help force four Black legislators from office.
It’s most likely that DeSantis and his legislative cronies are trying to score political points with their base in preparation for upcoming elections. Numerous political commentators have said that DeSantis is trying to position himself as a more reasonable devotee of former President Donald Trump for a possible 2024 presidential bid. Trump regularly stirred up resentments against marginalized groups in order to distract citizens and energize his base.
Disney has donated money to the Don’t Say Gay law’s main sponsors. Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek initially refused to publicly condemn the measure. Instead, he highlighted the company’s commitment to telling diverse stories and told employees who were unhappy with his decision to go see a therapist. Despite his claim about diversity, employees at Pixar said that Disney had cut every attempt to show same-sex affection or LGBTQ characters in its films.
Chapek then said he would meet with DeSantis to discuss somehow preventing the bill from being weaponized against LGBTQ people. In response, DeSantis said that he refused to bow down to “woke corporations” and released a video accusing LGBTQ people of trying to “inject transgenderism into kindergarten.”
Trying to do damage control, Disney said it would donate $5 million to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and other LGBTQ rights organizations. HRC rejected its donation and said Disney needed to take more direct action to combat the bill. Chapek eventually apologized to employees for not denouncing the bill.
“For Disney to come out and put a statement and say that the bill should have never passed and that they are going to actively work to repeal it, I think, one, was fundamentally dishonest but, two, I think that crossed the line,” DeSantis said after Chapek’s comments.