SANFORD — The state will likely assume control of Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District, rather than local governments absorbing it, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday.
DeSantis said he is working on a proposal that likely will be considered by the Legislature after the November elections.
Reedy Creek, which encompasses Disney World and neighboring properties, is set to dissolve on June 1, 2023. The governor’s office hasn’t released a written plan detailing how breaking up Disney World’s private government will unfold.
DeSantis also insisted Central Florida taxpayers will not be forced to take on the district’s nearly $1 billion in debt.
“The path forward is, Disney will not control its own government in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said at an event in Sanford. “Disney will have to follow the same laws that every other company has to follow in the state of Florida. They will pay their share of taxes, and they will be responsible for paying the debts.”
Under state law, the district’s assets and liabilities would be transferred to the “local general purpose government” when it’s abolished. Those governments include Orange and Osceola counties and the Disney-controlled cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista.
But DeSantis said he wants to put the state in charge of the district, while ensuring that Disney would continue to pay the taxes needed to maintain services for its theme park and resort properties. He suggested his plan could even result in higher pay for Reedy Creek’s firefighters.
“I’d much rather have the state leading that effort than potentially having local government [in charge]. … I’m worried that they [local officials] would use that as a pretext to raise taxes on people when that’s what they would want to do anyways and then try to blame Reedy Creek. So we’re not going to give them that opportunity,” he said.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said in April absorbing the district’s debts and liabilities with no new revenues could be “catastrophic” to the county’s budget and local taxpayers, who would shoulder the burden of providing public safety and other services for the entertainment giant’s properties.
Lawmakers didn’t conduct an economic study and rushed the bill through in April with only three days of consideration.
DeSantis has been feuding with Disney over its opposition to HB 1557, officially titled Parental Rights in Education but known as the “don’t say gay” law by critics. DeSantis blasted Disney as a “woke” corporation, while Disney halted its political giving in Florida.
Reedy Creek, which is controlled by Disney, can issue tax-free bonds, levy taxes, oversee land use and environmental protections and provide essential public services.
Legal questions have swirled about unraveling Reedy Creek. In particular, the state pledged to the district’s bondholders that it wouldn’t “limit or alter the rights” of the district to levy and collect taxes and raise revenue through fees and other means.
Reedy Creek pointed out that pledge in a statement to investors, writing that it “expects to explore its options while continuing its present operations.”
In May, Central Florida Democrats expressed concern that a state-run district would allow the governor to pick the board members who oversee the special district.
Presently, a five-member Board of Supervisors oversees Reedy Creek. As the primary landowner, Disney selects who sits on the board.
The governor’s office also has not explained how the district would be run if the state takes control.
His Reedy Creek comments came as DeSantis appeared at Seminole State College in Sanford to talk about $125 million in funding for nurses in the state budget.
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That figure includes $100 million for higher education and workforce education programs and another $25 million to establish a fund to combat the shortage of nursing instructors.
“This pipeline program will financially reward colleges and universities for excellence in nursing education programs,” DeSantis said.
The governor also was asked about his appointment Friday of GOP state Rep. Cord Byrd to replace outgoing Secretary of State Laurel Lee. Byrd would be in charge of the state’s elections and its new elections police force.
The selection of Byrd, who cursed at Black Democratic lawmakers during the session and whose wife has made comments supporting QAnon and the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots, was condemned by Democrats.
“Cord Byrd is very, very strong,” DeSantis said. “We are not going to have to worry in Florida about ‘Zuckerbucks’ infiltrating our elections in Florida,” referring to the 2021 election law banning third-party donations to elections offices, a reference to donations made by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to local elections offices in 2020.
“I think that we have a great framework in place,” DeSantis said. Byrd is “very, very strong in terms of wanting election integrity, and so we’re going to be off to the races, I think, very, very quickly.”