TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After an unprecedented hour and eight-minute disruption by House Democrats, Florida House Republicans steamrolled Democrats protesting a redistricting bill to approve the dissolution of a special taxing district that allows the Walt Disney Co. to self-govern its theme-park area.
The measure now goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval.
Lawmakers voted 70-38 to back the measure while Rep. Travaris L. McCurdy, D-Orlando, led Democrats in chants of “Stop the Black attack,” in protest of a just passed redistricting bill that election experts say will eliminate two Black-access Congressional Districts.
The Senate previously approved the measure 23-16, to repeal the Reedy Creek Improvement District, with Republican St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes voting with Democrats.
The redistricting protest prevented floor debate on the measure. In a chaotic seven minutes, the House approved new congressional maps and repealed legislation that had enabled Disney to build the world’s number one tourism attraction in Florida.
“What you saw is that the Speaker was in a situation that frankly, he couldn’t control,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa.
“What you saw was an acceleration of the process that we’ve seen all session long, which is just to move things through. We’ve never had enough time to debate,” said Driskell.
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SB 4 dissolves Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District on June 1, 2023. The district, created by state law in 1967, exempts 38 miles of land Disney owns from most state and local regulations and allows Disney to collect taxes, follow its own building codes and provide emergency services for its six theme parks and resorts.
House sponsor Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard, said the special district designation provides an unfair competitive advantage over other tourist attractions.
“We provide Disney things that we do not provide to their competitors. And that’s fundamentally unfair,” said Fine.
“Universal is building a third theme park. We’re not going to create the Woody Woodpecker Improvement District. They have to compete with one hand tied behind their backs,” said Fine.
Disney is Central Florida’s chief economic engine, a 2019 study by Oxford Economics calculates the company’s 38-mile-long empire of six theme parks, resorts and other enterprises produces $5.8 billion in state tax revenue from $75 billion in economic activity that supports 463,000 jobs
“What is he thinking? He’s going to hurt our economy. He’s going to hurt tourism. The notion that he’s going after all those jobs, shame on him,” said Congressman Charlie Crist, a Democratic candidate for governor, Tuesday at the Capitol minutes after Fine filed the proposal.
Disney has declined to comment on the proposal.
Democrats dismissed the GOP’s free-market argument as smoke to conceal a Republicans rush to punish an iconic Florida corporation for its political speech.
It took lawmakers two days to produce, debate and adopt the proposal after Gov. Ron DeSantis said he wanted the Legislature to repeal the governing structure Disney employed to create the world’s No. 1 tourism attraction on its Florida properties.
“We’ve never spent an hour on this,” said Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, adding the Republican repeal effort was “disrespectful of the legislative process.”
“They don’t even have a real fiscal or economic analysis. We should not tolerate this,” said Geller.
How DeSantis, Disney got to this point
The entertainment giant became ensnared in a culture war flareup when CEO Bob Chapek vowed to work to repeal the Parental Rights in Education Act – which opponents dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The measure prohibits classroom instruction on sexual and gender identity through third grade and limits to “age- appropriate” materials in later grades with a provision to enable parents to sue for damages if a school is found in violation.
DeSantis immediately slammed Disney as a “woke” corporation repeating “left-wing propaganda.”
Chapek responded with an announcement that Disney would stop contributing to political campaigns because of the controversy.
The company directly contributed $5 million to Florida candidates in 2020, according to state records – but it is hard to see its total influence in campaigns given the number of corporate entities that are part of the Disney family, the plethora of political action committees and their reporting requirements, and the number of candidates.
Six weeks after Chapek’s announcement, lawmakers went into special session and approved SB 4., repealing Reedy Creek and five other special districts for not having complied with a 1997 law to seek recodification.
While lawmakers debated the bill, DeSantis sent out a fundraising letter stating Disney had picked a fight with “the wrong guy” and called for contributions to “fight against the Democratic machine and woke Disney executives.”
“Look, you can’t go on national TV, have press conferences, be on Twitter talking about woke Disney and then come into a committee room and act like this bill and all that are completely connected. I mean, let’s just be real,” said the AFL-CIO’s Rich Templin, testifying against the measure during the proposal’s only committee stop.
Templin represents 40,000 union members working at Disney and Reedy Creek. He describes them as collateral damage in a culture war, a group whose economic future is suddenly at risk.
Democrats charge that DeSantis, and the GOP-led Legislature puts those jobs at risk and threaten to saddle Orange and Osceola counties with billions of dollars in Reedy Creek debt and other obligations to bolster DeSantis’ reelection campaign and possible presidential run.
“It shows the deep selfishness and the deep blind political ambition that this governor has. That he’s willing to do this on the backs of working people is unconscionable,” said Rep. Michelle Rayner, D-Tampa.
Fine and Republicans counter that the Legislature and Disney will have a year to work on the dissolution of Reedy Creek and prevent what the Senate sponsor called the Democrats’ “parade of horribles.”
Fine said that gives Disney more than enough time to “consider how they behave,” and seek recodification of Reedy Creek if they want to retain the “special privileges” Florida has given it.
“This is unhinged authoritarianism. This is about retribution. They are using the power of government to punish anyone who speaks out against them,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando .
James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee