Disney’s special operating district poised to be under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ control

Sen. Pizzo: ‘It’s like nationalizing a company. It’s truly socialism.’

By: - February 10, 2023 4:31 pm

ORLANDO, FL – MARCH 22: A view of the entrance of Walt Disney World on March 22, 2022, outside Orlando. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

The GOP-controlled Florida Legislature has passed legislation to allow the state to take control over Disney World’s special tax district, with Democrat Sen. Jason Pizzo of South Florida calling the move “truly socialism.”

“The only sort of box that this lands in is nationalism,” Pizzo said during a special session in the Florida Senate chamber on Friday. “It’s like nationalizing a company. It’s truly socialism.”

The measure passed 26-9 in the Senate, and the state House had already approved the bill on Thursday. Now it will go to the governor’s desk for his consideration.

Democrats said the move was solely because of “hurt feelings” on the part of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Jason Pizzo. Credit: Florida Senate

“We’re here because someone’s feelings got hurt,” said Pizzo, who represents parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties. He was referring to the fact that DeSantis and the Legislature moved to change the Disney corporation’s special tax district status only after the company came out in opposition to the Parental Rights in Education law last year. The law, dubbed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ by its critics, bans certain discussions of LGBTQ+ topics from kindergarten through third grades and places certain limits on those topics in older grades.

The legislation will rename what has been known for the past 55 years as the Reedy Creek Improvement District into the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.” It will give the power to the governor to select a five-person board. The district acts like a local government overseeing Disney’s 25,000-acre footprint in Orange and Osceola counties, and Republicans who support the measure insist that it will continue to operate as such.

Pensacola Republican Doug Broxson denied that the GOP-controlled Legislature was motivated by the governor’s pique at Disney, saying that the corporation had brought the change upon itself because it had moved from being an “apolitical, safe, 25,000-acres (spot) and tried to be involved in public policy.”

“We’re saying you have changed the terms of our agreement, therefore we will put some authority around what you do,” Broxson said.

It should be noted that Disney’s corporate political action committee has spent millions of dollars in campaign contributions in Florida over the years to both Republicans and Democrats, with Politico reporting that DeSantis’ political committees had received two $50,000 from Disney’s PAC contributions in 2021 and 2022.

Democrats expressed fears this week about what could happen when the new law gives the power to select the district’s five-member board exclusively to the governor, with Orlando Sen. Geraldine Thompson citing the example of what has happened at New College of Florida recently.

After DeSantis appointed a half dozen conservative Board of Trustees members to the Sarasota-based campus which has largely been considered progressive in its education approach, the board subsequently fired the college president and replaced her on an interim basis with former state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

“I don’t think there’s a hostile takeover going over into the private sector,” said Palm Coast Republican Sen. Travis Hutson. “This is government that we’re talking about here. So when we appoint somebody to these boards and give them the government authority to do so, they are going to run and operate like a government. That’s their sole purpose.”

Hutson also said that if there are perceived problems with any of the governor’s appointees to the special district, the Senate has the power to deal with that. The legislation calls for the Senate to confirm those appointees.

Disney World released a statement upon the bill’s passage in the Senate.

“For more than 50 years, the Reedy Creek Improvement District has operated at the highest standards, and we appreciate all that the District has done to help our destination grow and become one of the largest economic contributors and employers in the state,” said Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort. “We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework, and we will continue to innovate, inspire and bring joy to the millions of guests who come to Florida to visit Wal Disney World each year.”

The new legislation overrides a bill passed last year by the Legislature which would have dissolved the district entirely.  Most of the operations of the district will continue as before, meaning that the tax burden won’t fall to local taxpayers, as was speculated upon a year ago.

“A lot of folks in the media were saying, ‘oh my gosh, Disney’s actually going to pay less in taxes and Floridians are going to pay more taxes,’” DeSantis said earlier this week. “Well, this puts that to bed.”

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.