Bill putting Disney’s special district under DeSantis’ control moves forward in Florida House

House State Affairs Committee voted 13-3 to approve a bill

A sign near the entrance of the Reedy Creek Improvement District administration building is seen Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Disneys government in Florida was the envy of any private business, giving it unprecedented powers in deciding what and how to build at Walt Disney World. Those days are numbered as a new bill released in early February 2023 puts the entertainment giants district firmly in the control of Floridas governor and legislative leaders. (AP Photo/John Raoux) (John Raoux, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

TALLAHASEE, Fla. – The Florida House is ready to take up a proposal that would shift control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District and give it a new name.

The House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday voted 13-3 to approve a bill (HB 9B) that would give Gov. Ron DeSantis authority to appoint the district’s five-member Board of Supervisors and change the name to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

The state created the Reedy Creek district in 1967 and essentially gave Walt Disney Co. control over issues such as land use, fire protection and sewer services that are typically handled by local governments. The proposed overhaul comes after Disney angered DeSantis last year by publicly opposing a controversial education law.

Bill sponsor Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, said the proposal would ensure that people who live outside the district won’t be saddled with the district’s debts and operational costs.

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“To all that visit the parks, nothing is being changed, that vacation experience is going to stay the same,” Hawkins said. “The day-to-day operations remain as they would, especially when it comes to public safety and emergency services.”

Democrats said they have issues with a private entity running a special district, but they described the proposal as a “power grab.”

Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who opposed the bill, said Disney won’t be changed, while DeSantis is seeking to “give off the impression that he is strong on corporate accountability.”

“I don’t think there’s any debate that the past structure is problematic,” Eskamani said. “But from my interpretation, we’re taking one problematic swamp and we’re creating another swamp by allowing one person to appoint all five positions.”

The committee approved the bill on the third day of a special legislative session, readying the measure to go to the full House on Thursday

Disney angered DeSantis last year by opposing a law that restricts instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in schools. That prompted lawmakers to approve dissolving Reedy Creek and five other special districts across the state. But the dissolutions would not take effect until June 1, 2023, leaving time for lawmakers to re-establish and revamp the districts.

During an appearance Wednesday in Ocala, DeSantis said the bill will give the state the ability to tax Disney “for a lot of the benefits that they’ve accrued over the years.”

“They will actually be subject to more ability to be taxed,” DeSantis said. “You also have a board that’s going to be in place that’s going to maybe more accurately determine the value of the property in terms of getting that relief. So, they’re going to end up paying more taxes. There were a lot of things that were stripped in terms of some of these special provisions. There were some that were retained … that will not be in Disney’s control.”

House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said the goal is to put Disney on the same “playing field” with other businesses, pointing to entertainment venues Universal and SeaWorld.

“If you look at the bill, there’s at least a dozen things --- powers they had to build their own nuclear power plant --- are gone,” Renner said at the Ocala event with DeSantis. “There’s another dozen things that are modified. But the most important thing is they were the watchdog of themselves and now they’re not.”

Hawkins said the bill also removes the district’s power to operate such things as an airport and stadium. Such activities are not ongoing.

The revamped district would continue to have wide-ranging authority, including the ability to levy property taxes and fees, issue bonds and provide services such as water and sewer systems, roads and parking facilities.

Board members appointed by DeSantis would be subject to Senate confirmation. Appointees could not be employees, owners or operators of theme parks.

The Republican-dominated committee on Wednesday rejected a series of Democratic proposals. That included a proposal to require the board to include representation from Orlando and Orange County.

The committee approved revising the district’s boundaries. Hawkins said the initial version of the bill included roughly 120 acres that are no longer within the district.

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About the Author:

Jim is a Capitol reporter for the News Service of Florida, providing coverage on issues ranging from transportation and the environment to Legislative and Cabinet politics.