TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature wrapped up a special session Friday, passing bills to allow Gov. Ron DeSantis to take over Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District and fix previous actions that have led to lawsuits and charges being dismissed against people accused of voter fraud.
The Senate voted 26-9 to approve a bill giving DeSantis the power to appoint the five-member Reedy Creek Improvement District and change its name to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District to more accurately reflect its function, said Sen. Travis Hutson, who shepherded the House bill through the Senate.
“I don’t think this is hostile takeover over a private company,” Hutson, R-Palm Coast, said, addressing concerns raised by Democratic lawmakers that this is a power grab by DeSantis. “The governor can put anyone on the board he thinks is qualified. They are going to have really intelligent, really brilliant people on this board who make sure they do what they are supposed to do.”
On Friday night, Disney issued a statement from Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World.
“We are focused on the future and are ready to work within this new framework, and we will continue to innovate, inspire and bring joy to the millions of guests who come to Florida to visit Walt Disney World each year,” it read.
The Legislature also approved a measure to provide $10 million for the Department of Emergency Management to move unauthorized migrants anywhere in the United States. The bill makes legal the nearly $1.56 million DeSantis spent relocating nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Massachusetts last year.
A measure to broaden the scope of the statewide prosecutor to go after election fraud cases also won approval, 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.
“We always have oversight role and we always look at where dollars are spent and make adjustments,” sai House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast. “We did that this week in making adjustments from a policy standpoint.”
The battle 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, after Disney employees raised concerns about the bill.
DeSantis pushed for abolishing the district after the company opposed the law.
“This all seems like a retaliation by the governor at Disney for voicing concerns about the LGBTQ community,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando. “Removing a business’s independence for voicing concerns of its own employees is just wrong.”
Democrats were also concerned about who would wind up on the board. The only requirement for board members is that they be Florida residents and not have worked directly or indirectly for a theme park within the past three years.
But supporters said anyone could apply for the board seats, and the governor’s choices would be vetted by the Senate.
When someone suggested Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, would be a great candidate, she said she didn’t want it.
“I don’t want to drive four and a half hours from Naples once a month for a one-hour meeting to talk about roads and drainage,” she said.
Most Republicans who spoke in favor of the bill said it was a long overdue update for increased accountability and to take away extraordinary privileges granted to Disney. But Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Pensacola, made it clear he was motivated by Disney’s decision to engage in the political fray.
“It was Disney’s decision to go from an apolitical, safe, 25,000 acres and get involved in political life,” Broxson told fellow senators. He said Disney has “changed terms of the agreement, and we will put some terms around what you do.”
Senate Democrats also wondered why Reedy Creek needed to be reined in, considering its outstanding record as a steward of its resources, and its reputation for going beyond the requirements for accountability.
“I went back and found out from Senate staff there hasn’t been a whisper of noncompliance from Reedy Creek in the past two decades,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami. He said the Legislature’s action was tantamount to nationalizing a company, or socialism.
Get latest updates political news from Central Florida and across the state.
The bill takes away the ability to build a nuclear power plant or airport, neither of which it planned in its 55 years. It also can’t build a stadium or acquire land outside its boundaries through eminent domain, something it hasn’t done in decades.
The district will retain the right to levy taxes and sell bonds and provide fire protection and electricity, and water and sewer services.
Asked why so little actually changed, bill sponsor Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, said because the district was created in 1967, a year before the state approved a new constitution, there was little they could do to it without causing major financial problems for the surrounding communities.
Eliminating the district outright would have meant all of Disney’s debt and tax burdens would have fallen to the residents of Orange and Osceola counties, as media outlets reported last summer when the Legislature first voted to dissolve it.
“That is legally why we kept it the same, to keep it from falling to the counties,” Hawkins said.
After the vote, Hutson announced that he was, in fact, taking his family to Disney World this weekend for a trip scheduled months earlier.
“I know it’s ironic, but I am going to Disney World,” he said. “And I’m just hoping that I am still allowed in.”