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DeSantis's quick approval of a punishment for Disney draws scrutiny from open government advocates

 The castle at Walt Disney Wold in Orlando, Florida
Lydell Rawls
WFSU Public Media

Governor Ron DeSantis has set the clock going to sunset Disney's self-governing district, called Reedy Creek. The district has been in place since the 1970s, but DeSantis called on lawmakers to revoke it, after the company criticized the so-called Don't Say Gay law. Lawmakers approved the sunset provisions this week, but in a way open government advocates say may have skirted the state's open government laws.

Disney faced mounting pressure to speak out against the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law that passed the legislature earlier this year. The company’s silence on the then-bill as it made its way through the legislative process angered its employees, LGBTQ organizations and others who viewed the company’s lack of response as complicity. When Disney did call for the law's repeal, it drew the ire of DeSantis.

“For Disney to come out and put a statement and say that the bill should have never passed, and that they are going to actively work to repeal it, I think, one, was fundamentally dishonest,” he said in March. “But two, I think that crossed the line.”

Disney’s special improvement district status allows the company to collect taxes and issue bonds. The status would go away by June 2023, and Democratic lawmakers say the impact of that dissolution will be increased taxes for residents of Orange and Osceola Counties.
“We’re probably talking about $1.5 billion to $2 billion worth of obligation of liabilities," that would be passed on to residents, said Sen. Gary Farmer.

"No park admission fees or admission fees to pay for those for these residents. The debt service alone would amount to $580 per person. Family of four just got hit with a $2,200 tax bill.”

Some Republicans claim residents will actually see a tax cut. However, Orange County’s tax collector, Scott Randolf says that’s not true.

The Republican-led legislature also eliminated a social media carveout for theme parks following a 2021 law that punishes certain platforms that ban political candidates.

Lawmakers in both chambers held just one committee hearing each on the bills before starting floor votes. No one from the public or the local governments gave public testimony. Both bill sponsors also dodged questions about the origin of the bill language.

First Amendment Foundation Attorney Virginia Hamrick said she’s troubled by the lack of transparency and the way everything was handled.

“It is a big deal when you a notice a meeting and file a bill, notice it all in one day with no input from the people affected," she said. "That’s a big deal.”

Despite DeSantis making it clear he wanted to punish Disney for speaking out against the anti- LGBTQ bill, Senate President Wilton Simpson denied the measures were about the company.

“We’re not looking for retaliation, we’re looking and saying this is an organization amongst others that have many powers that we do not believe they should have in 2022,” he said.

Yet Republican Rep. Jackie Toledo, contradicted Simpson's statement of denial.

“Shamefully, Disney betrayed us," she said. "And the corporation that Walt Disney started, which is a beacon of family values and that has now been perverted by a woke mob of liberal extremists into a laboratory of gender identity social experimentation in which our children are the guinea pigs.”

Sarah Mueller is a journalist who has worked for media outlets in several states since 2010. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010 and worked as a print reporter covering local government and politics.