Escalating his culture war with the Walt Disney Co., Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded the special session of the Legislature that started Tuesday to consider eliminating the Reedy Creek Improvement District that independently governs much of Walt Disney World.
But Democrats, legal experts, and even a staff analysis of the GOP bill filed later in the day suggested a full dissolution of the district wouldn’t be possible without a referendum in municipalities that Disney firmly controls.
That didn’t stop swift action on the measure. Just hours later, it passed along party lines 14-7 out of the House State Affairs Committee.
DeSantis said he also wants to eliminate the carve out Disney received from the Legislature from the so-called Big Tech law that would allow people to sue social media companies such as Facebook or Twitter if they are censored. That law has been blocked by a federal judge.
“I am announcing today that we are expanding the call of what they are going to be considering this week,” DeSantis said in The Villages. “And so yes, they will be considering their congressional map. But they also will be considering termination of all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968. And that includes the Reedy Creek Improvement District.”
DeSantis’ announcement is a major new salvo in his feud with Disney over the so-called “don’t say gay” bill, which Disney CEO Bob Chapek opposed after it was passed by the Legislature last month. Chapek said the company was pausing its political contributions in the state and would work to oppose similar bills in other states.
Representatives for Disney didn’t respond to a request for comment.
State Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said the impact on Orange and Osceola counties could be immense.
“Reedy Creek has been doing everything,” Stewart said. “The fire department, they’ve been paying for all that infrastructure. And if they take Reedy Creek away, that responsibility is going to go to a government. And the government’s not going to get reimbursed for what they have to pick up and take care of.”
Bills filed Tuesday addressed both the repeal of special improvement districts prior to 1968 and eliminating the Big Tech carve out for theme parks, which also includes Universal since NBC/Universal launched the Peacock streaming channel.
DeSantis originally called the special session, which is scheduled to run through Friday if necessary, for the Legislature to review and approve a map he submitted that eliminates a predominantly Black congressional district in North Florida and creates four new Republican-friendly districts.
The governor is targeting Disney as a “distraction to steer everyone’s attention away from eliminating Black congressional districts including one in Central Florida,” said Democratic State Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando. “He is clearly targeting one company that no one cared about until Disney spoke up. And instead of creating calm and collaboration, he is creating chaos.”
As far as amending the Big Tech bill, which has been ruled unconstitutional and is being appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of appeal, Eskamani said it was another example of “more public money being wasted on unconstitutional laws.”
It cleared the House Judiciary committee on Tuesday by a 13-6 vote.
Reedy Creek covers about 25,000 acres in Orange and Osceola counties. It oversees land uses and environmental protections; building and maintaining roads and bridges; and providing essential public services, including fire/rescue services, drinking water, sewage and garbage pickup, among other typically government functions. Orange County provides Sheriff’s Office protection.
Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando said he and other Orlando-area Democrats visited Disney last week and spoke with Reedy Creek officials.
“I asked them have you heard anything from the Governor’s Office or the Republican lawmakers about any changes to the special improvement district,” he said. “Not a peep. They had not received one single phone call, email or communication from the governor’s office. This is totally from out of nowhere.”
Smith said it was “political retribution and punishment” for Disney speaking out against the governor over the “don’t say gay” law.
The bill analysis provides no measure of the full economic impact of repealing Reedy Creek, he said. “It may cost thousands of jobs, union jobs, which are good jobs. What are we going to do about flooding? What are we going to do about the power plant? What are we going to do about fire and rescue? These are all outstanding questions that no one has the answer to because none of this was noticed.”
Smith also said that only the members of a special district can abolish it. “The Legislature does not appear to have the authority to do this without the input and a vote from the Reedy Creek electors,” he said.
Richard Foglesong, a retired Rollins College professor who literally wrote the book on Reedy Creek, “Married to the Mouse,” said abolishing it would be even more difficult because of the two Disney-controlled municipalities created at the same time.
“The powers executed by the Reedy Creek improvement district were granted to the two cities, Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista,” Foglesong said. “… The powers granted to the municipalities have to be addressed in order to take these powers away. And that’s a messy ball of wax.”
The two towns have populations barely in the double digits, all loyal Disney employees. Disney also controls the Reedy Creek Commission as the sole landowner. Dealing with that reality, Foglesong said, is “a linchpin for accomplishing what [lawmakers] want to do.”
A Senate staff analysis seemed to agree, writing that dissolving an independent district is “subject to approval by a majority vote of the residents or landowners of the district.”
That appears to give Disney the ability to block the Legislature’s attempt to dissolve Reedy Creek.
But David Ramba, executive director of the Florida Association of Special Districts, said he thinks Reedy Creek could be abolished without a referendum under a different interpretation of state law.
The financial impact for both Disney and local government if Reedy Creek was dissolved would be difficult to estimate, said Michael Rinaldi, the head of U.S. Local Government Ratings for the credit analysis firm Fitch Ratings.
“RCID’s general fund and utility budgets are approximately $120 million and $125 million, respectively,” Rinaldi said, adding that its outstanding debts are about $900 million. “At this juncture, it is not clear how the debt would be treated if RCID is dissolved.”
The Senate staff analysis states that, “Unless otherwise provided by law or ordinance,” when a special district dissolves all of its property will be transferred to the local government, either the city or county, “which shall also assume all indebtedness of the preexisting special district.”
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said the county was “monitoring the special session in Tallahassee, particularly when it comes to unfunded cost shifts to local governments. We will await any final legislative actions before offering further comments.”
Orange County Commissioner Nicole Wilson, whose west Orange district includes Disney properties, praised Reedy Creek’s communication with the county, its engineering and planning services, and its stewardship of land.
“I just think what you’re hearing is strange political theater,” Wilson said. “We’ll see what it brings.”
A spokesperson for Osceola County declined comment Tuesday.
Legal experts spent Tuesday trying to decipher the implication of the bills, filed Tuesday by Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Rep. Randy Fine, R-Melbourne Beach, and how they would affect other special districts. The bills call for all special improvement districts created by special act prior to Nov. 5, 1968, to be repealed as of June 1, 2023.
Any district would be able to reestablish itself as long as it conforms to the requirements and limitations of the updated chapter.
About 132 special districts were created before 1968, including large hospital and water management districts. But the vast majority have been renewed since 1968 and aren’t affected by the legislation, according to the analysis.
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The Senate staff analysis mentioned just five other districts besides Reedy Creek that “appear to operate pursuant to a charter” predating the 1968 Florida Constitution and ‘were not reestablished, re-ratified, or otherwise reconstituted by a special act or general law.”
One of those is the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District, which serves about 1,100 customers in Franklin County in the Panhandle. Dissolving it could force water and sewer rates higher in the community, which has struggled economically with the shutdown of oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay, said Billy Fuentes, the district’s administrator.
“The prospect of our district being dissolved is a scary thought,” Fuentes said. “It definitely was a surprise. I had not heard anything about it.”
Foglesong was circumspect about how and why the Reedy Creek district is suddenly facing the biggest threat to its existence.
“I believe it was ill-gotten,” he said of Disney’s powers. “[But] I never would have thought that the Republican Legislature or a Republican governor, branding themselves conservatives, would take on the Walt Disney Company and question their charter.”
“I don’t think there’s a downside of what he’s doing,” he said of DeSantis. “Because in the cultural wars, you don’t really have to do anything. You just have to say things that [appeal to] your supporters and their anxieties. And that’s winning.”
Staff writers Stephen Hudak and Ryan Gillespie contributed to this report.