TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House voted 82-31 to reorganize the Reedy Creek Improvement District, removing the Walt Disney Co.’s control of the quasi-governmental agency it’s managed for more than five decades.
The measure was one of several bills in the two-week special session meant to provide legislative cover for actions DeSantis took that are being challenged in state and federal courts.
“This is not a repeal of the Reedy Creek District,” said Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, the bill’s sponsor. “This treats everybody the same, from reporting measures to no company having an unfair advantage over their competitors.”
The bill has been sent to the Senate for final approval.
Under the bill, Disney’s handpicked board of supervisors would be replaced by five supervisors appointed by DeSantis and confirmed by the Senate. The other main change is renaming Reedy Creek to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
Orlando Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani on Wednesday tried to broaden the board’s diversity by having the full Cabinet appoint three members and have elected officials from Orlando, Kissimmee and Orange and Osceola fill out the rest of the board
Eskamani failed again Thursday before the full House to change the makeup of the board to include local elected officials.
“One of my concerns and others in the Democratic caucus have is that this board is being taken over by Gov. DeSantis, appointing five members to oversee a private company,” Eskamani said. “I will admit the current structure is problematic, we have to have a local voice … because of the local impact of the tourism economy there be diversification of that board.”
“My fear is we are creating an environment where contracts get diverted to political friends,” she said.
The move to take over Reedy Creek came shortly after Disney’s former CEO spoke out in opposition to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law that limits instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in schools. DeSantis pushed for abolishing Reedy Creek after the company opposed the law.
Eskamani and fellow Democrat Rep. Rita Harris of Orlando also tried to prohibit any campaign donors to DeSantis or his political committees from being appointed, but those efforts also failed in committee.
Harris, who has many constituents that work at Disney World or at other resorts in the vicinity, was concerned that “nobody ever had a complaint about how it had been run, nobody ever talked about it having an unfair advantage until last year when Disney was vocal and opposed the governor.
If it passes, she said, it will send a message that if any company challenges the governor, they will be punished.
“In reality, this is about “don’t say gay” and it’s time to pay attention to the writing on the wall,” said Rep. Lavon Bracy Davis, D-Orlando. “This is about retribution and punishment … against an organization that had the gumption to speak up against ‘don’t say gay.”
Hawkins said that the bill is not a vendetta against Disney. “If it is in response to anything, go back to 1967 when the Democrats held a special session to approve this. Today, that is what we are correcting.”
Under the bill, anyone who has worked directly or indirectly for a theme park within the past three years would be prohibited from serving.
But the district will still be able to levy taxes, issue bonds, build roads, and provide fire protection and water and sewer services that Reedy Creek has enjoyed for nearly 60 years.
Some of the privileges that will be taken away the district has rarely if ever used, like building a nuclear power plant, stadium or airport or using public dollars for advertising. Others, like using eminent domain to acquire property outside its 25,000-acre boundaries, haven’t been used since the 1960s.
It already has a stadium that once was a spring training facility for the Atlanta Braves. There is no airport or nuclear power plant at the resort.
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Taking away those privileges puts Disney on an equal footing with other tourist attractions, Hawkins said. It also provides more accountability and reporting, even though Reedy Creek already goes above and beyond what the law requires, he said.
“What we’re doing is solving a problem,” Brevard County Republican Rep. Randy Fine said. “Many of the voices who oppose this idea now have been saying it for decades. They just don’t like the reason we may have this political will today.”
The full House also took up a measure to provide $10 million for moving migrants anywhere in the United States. While the House debated the measures, lawyers for DeSantis said they would ask a Leon County judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the legality of the program once the bill is signed into law, Politico reported.
Opponents of the bill said it was designed to give the governor a legislative pass for the way he spent the money allocated for the migrant flight program, which detractors called a political stunt. The bill would make legal the nearly $1.6 million spent last year sending nearly 50 Venezuelan asylum seekers from San Antonio, Texas to Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.
The House sponsor, Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, said lawmakers are “creating a beautiful program that allows individuals that want to go to a sanctuary city to get free airfare and get the trip that they want.”
The House also took up a measure to broaden the scope of the statewide prosecutor to go after election fraud cases, after judges dismissed three of 20 cases because the crimes were not committed in multiple jurisdictions. So far, only one person was found guilty on one of two charges and another pleaded guilty.
The House will give those bills a final vote on Friday.