Central Florida lawmakers suspect Gov. Ron DeSantis is planning to replace Disney World’s special government district with a new one that he would control.
DeSantis hasn’t released a plan for the future of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which is set to be dissolved on June 1, 2023.
State Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said one scenario could involve a new state-run district with board members appointed by the governor.
“The governor will establish a new district, that’s our latest word, … controlled by the governor with appointments by the governor,” she said during a news conference Monday. “Therefore, the debt will be paid, if this were the case, by the state of Florida for over a billion dollars.”
Reedy Creek, which encompasses Disney World and neighboring properties, has the power to issue tax-free bonds, levy taxes, oversee land use and environmental protections and provide essential public services.
DeSantis mentioned the possibility of a state board during a Fox News town hall meeting Thursday night, but he hasn’t released specifics. Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis spokeswoman, didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday on the governor’s plan.
Presently, Reedy Creek is overseen by a five-member Board of Supervisors. As the primary landowner, Disney gets to select who sits on the board.
Disney hasn’t publicly commented on its strategy, but Reedy Creek sent a note to investors pointing out a state law that Florida guaranteed to bondholders it would not limit the district’s ability to collect taxes and raise other revenues.
Stewart said she spoke briefly with Disney officials.
“They are just saying they are huddled up, and they’re working on it,” she said.
DeSantis has been battling Disney over its opposition to what is widely known as the “don’t say gay” law. He said Disney should not receive “special privileges,” such as being able to control its own government in Florida.
DeSantis signed legislation on April 22 abolishing Reedy Creek and five other special districts next year, but questions have mounted over how it would be carried out. The governor’s office issued a statement after the bill signing that it intends to propose legislation to create new special districts “in a manner that ensures transparency and an even playing field under the law.”
Under Florida law, Reedy Creek’s debt and assets would transfer to the “local general purpose government,” which could be Orange and Osceola counties and the Disney-controlled cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista.
Democrats said that could lead to a massive property tax increase for local taxpayers who would have to pick up the district’s debts and fund its operations. No detailed estimates exist, but Central Florida leaders expect taxes could increase 20% to 25%.
“This bill is a knee-jerk reaction, a political stunt which is short sighted and not well thought out,” said state Sen. Victor Torres, D-Kissimmee. “Disney is not the one being punished by this bill. … The taxpayers of Orange and Osceola are going to be punished. All Floridians will be punished if this No. 1 economic industry — tourism — declines because of this bill.”
State Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, said the governor didn’t think out the ramifications of abolishing Reedy Creek and is now doing damage control.
“He’s continually reacting to the public perception of his actions and doesn’t have a clear agenda,” Bracy said.
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DeSantis insists taxes won’t go up if Reedy Creek is abolished.
“There’s going to be additional legislative action … so stay tuned,” he said Thursday on Fox News. “That’ll all be apparent. The bonds will be paid by Disney. They will be paying taxes, probably more taxes.”
Even if Reedy Creek is abolished, Disney could retain its autonomy by transferring many of Reedy Creek’s governing powers to two cities it controls, said Chad Emerson, an attorney who wrote a book called “Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World .”
Disney controls the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, which were also granted extensive powers by state legislators when Reedy Creek was created in 1967.
“They still exist and still can engage in almost all of the activities that Reedy Creek could. … They are small cities but they gave them big-city authority,” Emerson said.
The cities have a combined population of fewer than 60 people, and the residents are all Disney employees or retirees.