Ron DeSantis, Florida's Republican governor, has declared a regulatory war on one of the state's biggest employers. But it's taxpayers who may ultimately pay the price.
In March, DeSantis signed into law H.B. 1577, which described itself as "an act relating to parental rights in education." The bill limits discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in public school instruction and authorizes parents to sue school districts that break the vaguely written rules.
Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Chapek initially tried to keep the company publicly neutral on the bill. But after it passed, Chapek and Disney, responding to pressure from the company's employees, both spoke out against H.B. 1577.
Irked by the criticism, DeSantis and Florida's Republican-controlled legislature took aim at the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), which state lawmakers established in 1967 to give Disney substantial autonomy within the nearly 40 square miles it owns in Orange and Osceola counties. The special district allows Disney to control zoning, construction, infrastructure, emergency services, and taxation to pay for all of it.
While Florida has more than 1,800 special districts, Republicans targeted Disney by restricting the bill to districts established prior to 1968. DeSantis made it clear when he signed the bill that it was punishment for criticism of H.B. 1577. "You're a corporation in Burbank, California, and you're going to marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state," he said. "We view that as a provocation, and we're going to fight back." The bill would dissolve the RCID and five other pre-1968 districts in 2023.
While DeSantis and other Florida Republicans seem to view the RCID as an undeserved privilege, it freed Orange and Osceola counties, along with their taxpayers, from responsibility for Disney's massive park. For instance, Disney pays the Orange County Sheriff's Office millions of dollars each year for policing services. Orange County Mayor Jerry L. Demings said it would be "catastrophic" for the county's budget if it had to pay for first-responder services in the park. DeSantis suggested in May that the state could take over the district.
The RCID also has $1 billion in bond debt. In an April statement to bondholders, Reedy Creek representatives said the district cannot be dissolved under Florida law unless those debts are paid off.
What happens next is not entirely clear, although an early attempt by a group of nearby taxpayers to sue DeSantis was dismissed due to lack of standing. Some First Amendment scholars suggested that Disney could challenge the law as a form of unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. As of mid-May, Disney had not filed such a lawsuit.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "DeSantis vs. Disney".