TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis would appoint all the board members of Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District under a House bill filed for the special session that began Monday.
The measure also would rename Reedy Creek the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District within two years.
The district remains intact, and its outstanding debt, contracts and tax collection would not be affected, according to the bill, backing DeSantis’ statements that Orange and Osceola counties would not be responsible for Reedy Creek’s $1 billion debt.
But the 189-page bill (HB 9B) sponsored by Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, changes how all five members of the district’s Board of Supervisors are selected. The governor would appoint those members subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate. Presently, Disney gets to elect the members because it owns almost all the land in the district.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, blasted the proposal as a power grab.
“They should rename the district to ‘Disney is the Governor’s Political Prisoner’ since that’s pretty much what the bill does,” she said. “It’s a power grab by DeSantis and allows him to appoint more of his friends to positions of power.”
Disney is monitoring the legislation, Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort, said in a prepared statement.
“Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year,” he said.
In an email, DeSantis’ spokesman Bryan Griffin said Disney received “extraordinary special privileges” under Florida law, and the legislation would bring accountability,
“These actions ensure a state-controlled district accountable to the people instead of a corporate-controlled kingdom,” he said.
DeSantis has been feuding with Disney over the entertainment giant’s opposition to what critics call the “don’t say gay” law. That law prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for grades kindergarten through 3 or in a manner that is not “age appropriate.”
Last year, Florida lawmakers voted to abolish Reedy Creek effective June 1 but left the option of keeping it with changes.
Abolishing the district could have saddled Orange and Osceola counties with Reedy Creek’s debt. Such a move also could have violated a promise the state made with investors in bond documents.
Under existing law, the district’s landowners elect the board members. Because Disney owns almost all of the land in the district, it can pick the board members for Reedy Creek, created by the Legislature in 1967 as Walt Disney prepared to build his Florida theme park.
If the bill passes, Disney could face more government red tape than it does now because it no longer will control the board that approves many of its projects, said Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida.
“The people who currently serve on Reedy Creek’s board always have Disney’s best interest at heart,” Jewett said. “That’s why they are there. New appointees will not necessarily have that as their primary mission.”
Get latest updates political news from Central Florida and across the state.
The bill released Monday says any person who has worked for or had a contractual relationship with a theme park within the past three years would be prohibited from serving on the new board. Board members must be residents of Florida.
It says consideration will be given to people knowledgeable in a variety of fields, from accounting to utility operations and management.
Board members will not draw a salary, but they will be eligible for per diem and travel reimbursement allowable under state law.
The measure eliminates Disney’s ability to build a nuclear power plant but leaves intact its ability to construct electric power plants and solar power generation systems.
The legislation makes additional changes, Griffin said, including prohibiting no-bid construction contracts and the acquisition of property beyond the district’s boundaries through eminent domain.
It also allows the state to impose taxes on Disney for road projects outside the district’s boundaries, he said.