Florida GOP gives Gov. Ron DeSantis control of Disney district

'This all seems a retaliation by the governor for Disney voicing its support for the LGBTQ community,' Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart says
Posted at 2:22 PM, Feb 10, 2023

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will soon take control of Walt Disney World's self-governing district after Senate Republicans approved a bill Friday punishing the company over its opposition to the law critics call "Don't Say Gay."

The legislation, which now awaits the governor's signature, would require DeSantis to appoint a five-member board to oversee the government services it provides in the company's sprawling properties in Florida.

The vote on the Disney bill ended a special legislative session focused on the conservative agenda of a governor who has leveraged political tensions on gender identity, sexual orientation and immigration to become a national GOP star and potential White House contender.

The session itself, which was hastily called and completed, also signaled DeSantis' willingness to leverage the Republican supermajority in the statehouse to accomplish his political goals, a strategy he will continue in the coming months ahead of his expected presidential candidacy.

The Disney district takeover was initiated last year when Disney publicly opposed "Don't Say Gay," which bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and lessons deemed not age-appropriate.

DeSantis moved to penalize the company, directing lawmakers to dissolve the district during a special legislative session in April, beginning a closely watched restructuring process.

Last week, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, in coordination with the governor, ordered lawmakers to return for another special session to complete the state takeover of the district.

"This all seems a retaliation by the governor for Disney voicing its support for the LGBTQ community," Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart said Friday before the bill's passage.

The measure also changes the district's name from the Reedy Creek Improvement District to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and subjects it to various layers of state oversight. Board members are currently named through entities controlled by Disney.

The bill leaves the district and its financial abilities and debt obligations intact, addressing a chief concern of surrounding governments. It also prevents people who have worked with or contracted with a theme park in the past three years from serving on the district’s new governing board.

Having a separate government allows the district to issue bonds and provide zoning, fire protection, utilities and infrastructure services on its land. Republican critics of the district argue it gives Disney a commercial advantage unavailable to others.

"This bill takes an old district and modernized it and updated it," said Republican Rep. Fred Hawkins, the bill sponsor. "It took rights away that no corporation should have in being able to construct or have an unfair competitive advantage over its competitors."

The creation of the district was instrumental in the company's decision to build near Orlando in the 1960s.

Disney officials had told the state they planned to build a futuristic city that would include a transit system and urban planning innovations, so the company needed autonomy in building and deciding how to use the land. The futuristic city never materialized and instead morphed into a second theme park that opened in 1982.

Separately on Friday, Republicans in the House gave final passage to two bills that amount to technical fixes to key DeSantis initiatives on immigration and voter fraud. The proposals now move to the governor's office to be signed into law.

One bill is meant to cut off a legal challenge to the governor's migrant relocation program, which began last year when DeSantis used taxpayer dollars to fly a group of South American migrants from Texas to the liberal enclave resort island of Martha's Vineyard.

The trip drew legal questions because the administration paid for the flight using money intended to remove migrants who were located in Florida, not migrants who were in any other state.

The legislation creates a dedicated program in the governor’s office on migrant relocation and specifies that future flights could move migrants from anywhere in the U.S. The measure increases the likelihood of additional trips as DeSantis continues his criticism of federal border policy along his path to an expected 2024 presidential bid.

Republicans have repeatedly said the bill would help migrants by taking them to sanctuary cities and states, while Democrats have slammed the program as a political stunt meant to serve the governor's political ambitions.

The other proposal is meant to strengthen the prosecutorial power of the governor’s election police unit, clarifying in state law that the statewide prosecutor has authority to prosecute election crimes in federal and state races.

"This ensures fraud will be investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, as it should," said Republican Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin.

Some cases tied to the election police unit have been dismissed by judges who said the statewide prosecutor did not have jurisdiction to bring charges.

DeSantis pushed lawmakers to create the election police unit last year to address Republican concerns about voter fraud, which have proliferated among conservatives following former President Donald Trump's false claims that he reelection was stolen.

The unit, housed in the governor's department of state, reviews fraud allegations and conducts preliminary investigations, with a special group of state police officers who pursue violations.

Democrats have said the unit is meant to dissuade people from voting and that it is unnecessary since local prosecutors can investigate and charge voter fraud.

"This is a fear tactic and it's voter suppression, plain and simple," said Rep. Dianne Hart, a Democrat.

DeSantis is expected to sign the bills into law. Lawmakers will return to Tallahassee in early March for their regular legislative session, where they are expected to approve another slate of DeSantis priorities on guns, education, capital punishment and abortion.