TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida lawmakers met Monday to begin a state takeover of Walt Disney World’s self-governing district and expand a migrant relocation program, key conservative priorities of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis ahead of his expected White House run.
Republican leaders of the statehouse, in coordination with DeSantis, ordered the Legislature to convene in a special session to restructure the Reedy Creek Improvement District, as the Disney government is known.
Lawmakers will also consider a proposal to create a state department focused on migrant transportation, after the governor flew a group of South American migrants from Texas to Massachusetts last year in protest of federal border policy.
The session continues a focus by DeSantis focus on social issues including sexual orientation, gender and immigration as the Republican governor wades into political divides on his path to a potential 2024 presidential run.
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The meeting is the latest development in a high-profile feud between DeSantis and Disney over the company’s criticism of a law dubbed by critics as “Don’t Say Gay,” which bars instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and lessons deemed not age-appropriate.
The governor, in going after Disney, displayed a willingness to penalize one of the state’s biggest employers and political donors, reinforcing the combative leadership style that has propelled him to national political stardom and appeals to conservative primary voters.
The Disney legislation would largely leave the Reedy Creek district and its abilities intact but change its name to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and require the governor to appoint a five-member oversight board. Board members previously were named through entities controlled by Disney.
In addition to Disney, DeSantis is using the special session to advance his national agenda on immigration and election fraud.
Lawmakers are expected to create the Unauthorized Alien Transport Program in the governor’s administration to transport migrants within the country if they have been processed by the federal government.
The legislation comes after DeSantis last year used part of a $12 million fund, paid for by taxpayers, to fly about 50 South American migrants from Texas to the Massachusetts resort island of Martha’s Vineyard, drawing widespread condemnation.
The flight also led to legal questions because the governor’s office paid for the trip using money intended to transport migrants out of Florida, not Texas or any other state. The bill lawmakers will consider specifies that future flights could move migrants from anywhere in the U.S.
Another proposal expected to pass during the session would enhance the ability of the statewide prosecutor to bring election crime charges, a move meant to strengthen the power of the governor’s new election police force.
DeSantis last year pushed lawmakers to create a law enforcement unit focused on election crimes, addressing another concern of conservative voters after the 2020 election. But in the months since, some of the unit’s charges have been dismissed by judges because of jurisdiction issues.
The session is expected to deliver DeSantis a political victory in his fight against Disney, a squabble that began last year when the entertainment giant publicly opposed the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The company said it would pause political donations in the state and support organizations working to oppose the law.
DeSantis and other Republicans moved quickly to criticize Disney, calling it a purveyor of “woke” ideologies that are inappropriate for children.
At DeSantis’ request, the GOP-dominated statehouse in April approved legislation to eliminate Disney’s Reedy Creek government by June 2023, beginning a closely watched process that would determine the structure of government that controls the company’s sprawling property.
The creation of the Reedy Creek district was instrumental in Disney’s decision to build near Orlando in the 1960s, when company leaders told the state they planned to build a futuristic city — the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, also known as Epcot.
The proposed city was to include a rapid transit system and urban planning innovations, so Disney needed autonomy in the district for building and deciding how to use the land, they said. The futuristic city never materialized, and instead Epcot morphed into a second theme park that opened in 1982.
Having a separate government allows Disney 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.
The special session will also adjust language in current laws addressing endorsement deals for college athletes.
Florida was one of the first states to pass a law allowing college athletes to profit off their name, image or likeness, but it doesn’t allow people affiliated with universities to help secure endorsement deals. The proposal would lift that provision to make Florida more competitive with other states that don’t have the restriction.
Lawmakers will also consider a bill to provide more relief money for Hurricane Ian and Nicole recovery efforts.
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