Feb 6, 2023
Ron DeSantis to Take Control of Disney’s District Board in New Bill
(Bloomberg) -- Florida lawmakers are proposing to give Ron DeSantis full control over the board overseeing Walt Disney Co.’s special district, as the Republican governor escalates his fight with the entertainment giant.
A new bill filed Monday would give the governor power to appoint the five-member board of supervisors that runs what is now known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special government entity that’s granted sweeping benefits to Disney for half a century. Those appointees will then have to be confirmed by state senators. The new rules prevent anyone with ties to a theme park in the past three years from serving on the board.
“Florida is dissolving the corporate kingdom and beginning a new era of accountability and transparency,” Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’ press secretary, said in an emailed statement. The former rules “gifted extraordinary special privileges to a single corporation.”
Reedy Creek is currently governed by a five-member board of supervisors, elected by local property owners, according to its charter. Given that most of the land within the district is owned by Disney and its affiliates, the company has out-sized decision-making power.
The proposed legislation keeps in place Reedy Creek’s obligation to almost $1 billion of outstanding bonds and maintains its present revenue streams. The bill text specified that “no bond or other instrument of indebtedness” previously issued by the district will be affected.
In a statement, Jeff Vahle, president of the Walt Disney World resort, said the company is monitoring the progress of the legislation.
“Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year,” he said.
Under the current proposal, Reedy Creek would be renamed the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.”
Read more: What Florida’s Action Against Disney Means: QuickTake
The changes are a culmination of a clash between Florida’s governor and one of the state’s largest employers. Last year, DeSantis signed a law that would have dissolved Reedy Creek, which provides municipal functions such as water, infrastructure and emergency services to Walt Disney World Resort. The move was a response by what DeSantis saw as Disney’s criticism of a law he signed that limits elementary school teachings about gender identity. He said the district gave the company powers other businesses did not have.
“We didn’t want anybody doing business in Florida, which is a privilege, having any unfair advantage,” Representative Fred Hawkins, a Republican who sponsored the legislation, said in an interview.
The bill will be discussed in a Florida House state affairs committee hearing on Wednesday and is expected to be debated by the full legislature later this week. Eventually, a version will be brought to DeSantis for his signature. Republicans have a large majority in both legislative chambers, likely fast-tracking approval. Hawkins said he hadn’t spoken with bondholders, but said he’d met several times with Disney representatives.
Created in 1967, the Reedy Creek district was instrumental in turning 38.5 square miles of mostly swamp land into a theme park complex that gets millions of visitors every year. Its board of supervisors usually deals with issues like infrastructure financing, growth management and development regulations, while also appointing a district administrator.
The new bill would also eliminate some of the more obscure powers the district had but never used. Its current charter mentions, for instance, the ability to build public utilities facilities for the “the transmission of power through nuclear fission,” which is not included in the proposed legislation. It will also require the new board to present a report within a year to eliminate more district powers.
The bill would allow Florida to impose taxes on Disney for possible road projects outside of the district’s boundaries, Griffin said.
It would also create “an avenue to compel Disney to contribute to local infrastructure,” he said, eliminating “Disney’s self-governing status.”
--With assistance from Thomas Buckley.
(Adds company comment in sixth paragraph.)
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