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DeSantis-Backed Plan: FL State Gov't Would Take Control of Disney's Special District

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants the Florida legislature to end Walt Disney World's (WDW) special self-governing district and replace it with a governing board directly under the state's control. 

A notice posted on Osceola County's website Friday states the "intent to seek legislation before the Florida Legislature, during a regular, extended, or special session, of an act relating to the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Orange and Osceola Counties; amending, reenacting, and repealing Chapter 67-764, Laws of Florida, and decree in chancery no. 66-1061 (May 13, 1966); removing and revising powers of the District; increasing state oversight, accountability, and transparency of the District."

Fox News reports DeSantis is behind the effort, according to sources, and wants the legislation to direct that members of the board be appointed by the governor. 

The Reedy Creek Improvement District with its five-member Board of Supervisors was created by the state legislature in 1967. It's allowed to provide government services such as zoning, fire protection, utilities, and infrastructure. Since it is the largest landowner in the district, the company selects members of the board. 

As CBN News has reported, the creation of the district, and the control the state gave to Disney over 27,000 acres 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, but it morphed instead into the EPCOT theme park.

"The corporate kingdom has come to an end," DeSantis' communications director, Taryn Fenske, said in a statement. "Under the proposed legislation, Disney will no longer control its own government, will live under the same laws as everyone else, will be responsible for their outstanding debts, and will pay their fair share of taxes."

"Imposing a state-controlled board will also ensure that Orange County cannot use this issue as a pretext to raise taxes on Orange County residents," she added.

The move comes after a yearlong battle between DeSantis and the Walt Disney Company that started when the company began engaging in politics, opposing parental rights legislation that restricts classroom instruction on gender and sexuality to young children. 

As CBN News reported last April, DeSantis signed a bill passed by the legislature dissolving Disney World's private government after the entertainment giant opposed the Sunshine State's new parental rights law.

DeSantis at the time said Disney lied about the content of the education law but that he viewed the company's vow to fight the law as unacceptable.

"You're a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you're gonna marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state. We view that as a provocation, and we're going to fight back against that," DeSantis said.

Both houses of the Florida legislature voted to eliminate Disney World's special privileges that had essentially established the Walt Disney Company as its own private government. 

The law will eliminate the Reedy Creek Improvement District, as the 55-year-old Disney government is known, as well as a handful of other similar districts by this June. It could also have huge tax implications for Disney, whose series of theme parks have transformed Orlando into one of the world's most popular tourist destinations.

The new planned legislation would put the bond debt on Disney and not the taxpayers of Orange and Osceola counties, where the 38.5-square-mile Reedy Creek district is located, according to the Tallahassee Democrat

DeSantis has said local counties and the state will not raise taxes to cover the $100 million in annual operating expenses and more than $1 billion in debt currently handled by Reedy Creek. But it remains unclear how the finances will be managed. 

The Florida Legislature begins its regular, two-month session in March. DeSantis, though, has talked about holding at least one special session before then, and it's possible the Disney measure could emerge quickly, The Democrat reported. 

A bill has not yet been filed in the legislature. 

State Sen. Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) told The Orlando Sentinel she's concerned putting the state in charge of the district could have major implications for Central Florida by disrupting Disney's business operations, a major employer and economic engine for the region.

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) told The Sentinel it's a procedural step that "starts the legally required timeframe necessary to move forward with developing a local bill to end the self-governance of The Walt Disney World Co. while protecting local taxpayers from Disney's debts."

State Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican who sponsored the bill to dissolve Reedy Creek, told The Washington Post that the notice published Friday is far from being a bill and that many details still need to be negotiated.

"What this shows is that work is being done and the bill will be coming down the pike," Fine said. "The goal is to make this special district just like every other special district in the state."

Jacob Schumer, an attorney in Central Florida who specializes in bond markets, told The Post he doesn't expect major changes to the way Disney has always operated in Florida.

"Reedy Creek is going to be special, no matter what as long as it continues to exist," Schumer said. "They aren't going to do anything major, because doing something major would give the bondholders and the federal government a case against the state."

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About The Author

Steve Warren is a senior multimedia producer for CBN News. Warren has worked in the news departments of television stations and cable networks across the country. In addition, he also worked as a producer-director in television production and on-air promotion. A Civil War historian, he authored the book The Second Battle of Cabin Creek: Brilliant Victory. It was the companion book to the television documentary titled Last Raid at Cabin Creek currently streaming on Amazon Prime. He holds an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and a B.A. in Communication from the University of