DeSantis says he’s ‘moved on’ from Disney fight as he tells company to drop lawsuit against Florida

‘What I would say is drop the lawsuit,’ the GOP presidential hopeful remarked

Kelly Rissman
Tuesday 15 August 2023 10:30 EDT
Ron DeSantis removes elected state attorney from office

Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis declared that he has “moved on” from his feud with Disney.

Mr DeSantis told CNBC Last Call anchor Brian Sullivan that he’s not anti-Disney, despite long-running animosity towards the entertainment company: “Look, my wife and I, we got married at Walt Disney World. And so it’s not like we’re opposed. I mean, we’ve appreciated working with them over the years, but I would just say, go back to what you did well. I think it’s going to be the right business decision, and all that.”

Then, the Florida governor asked the company to drop its lawsuit altogether, which the company filed in late April. “But where we are today, you know, we basically moved on. They’re suing the state of Florida, they’re going to lose that lawsuit. So what I would say is drop the lawsuit.”

He then cited Florida’s top rank in terms of economy. Disney is reportedly Florida’s largest taxpayer.

“This is a great place to do business. Your competitors all do very well here, Universal, SeaWorld. They have not had the same special privileges as you have. So all we want to do is treat everybody the same, and let’s move forward. I’m totally fine with that. But I’m not fine with giving extraordinary privileges, you know, to one special company at the exclusion of everybody else,” he continued. He was referring to Disney’s special tax district, which has become a fixture of the feud.

The DeSantis-Disney dispute began last year, when Disney publicly criticised the Florida governor’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. In February 2022, after Mr Iger passed the torch to Bob Chapek, he condemned the legislation: “If passed, this bill will put vulnerable, young LGBTQ people in jeopardy.”

Despite this criticisim—and the company’s record of LGBT+ advocacy—reporting from The Independent and other outlets found that Disney entities contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Mr DeSantis and other Republican lawmakers central to the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

A feud ignited between the governor’s administration and the Walt Disney Company after it announced its opposition to what critics have called the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law last year.

The “Parental Rights in Education Act” prohibits classroom instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity” in state schools. Critics have warned that the broadly written law threatens to freeze classroom speech involving LGBT+ people and issues, from civil rights history lessons to discussion of LGBT+ students, school staff and their families.

After Disney’s public objections, the governor and members of his administration ignited a feud that escalated to Republican threats to punish Disney’s operations in the state and ultimately resulted in his administration taking control of them.

A municipal district that covers Disney’s sprawling campus was first implemented in 1967, effectively allowing Disney to control its own land use and zoning rules and operate its own public services, including water, sanitation, emergency services and infrastructure maintenance, without burdening local taxpayers.

The governor dissolved that board earlier this year and appointed members to a newly created district promising to end “special privileges” for the company.

Disney’s federal lawsuit accuses the governor’s administration of waging a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District, the governing jurisdiction and special taxing district for Disney World, originated in 1967 in order to give Disney control of its land use, zoning rules and public services without putting a tax burden on Florida residents. Disney was responsible for footing the costs of those services. But the governor wanted to destroy that longstanding arrangement.

On 19 April, Republican state Rep Randy Fine introduced the “Independent Special Districts,” which aimed to dissolve Disney’s special district, Reedy Creek.

Florida state lawmakers vooiced concerns that dissolving Reedy Creek would not only be in violation of state law, but would also force taxpayers to fund infrastructure projects that Disney was effectively paying for through the district’s arrangement.

Instead, a new plan was hatched. By February 2023, Governor DeSantis signed a bill that effectively allowed Florida to take over the new district and its taxing abilities, with a five-member board made up of his own appointees. Reedy Creek’s replacement is called the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.”

Orlando-area Democratic state representative Anna Eskamani criticised the move in a statement: “All this bill does is rename Reedy Creek and allow Governor DeSantis to appoint hostile conservative cronies to a new board. She continued, “Disney still maintains the same tax breaks – but their First Amendment rights have been suppressed, and it sends a message to any private individual or company that if you don’t purport to what the governor wants, then you’ll be punished.”

“Today, the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” Mr DeSantis said at the time. “There’s a new sheriff in town and accountability will be the order of the day.”

On 26 April, Disney filed a federal lawsuit against the governor, claiming a “targeted campaign of government retaliation.” The lawsuit stated, “Disney regrets that it has come to this.”

“At the governor’s bidding, the state’s oversight board has purported to ‘void’ publicly noticed and duly agreed development contracts, which had laid the foundation for billions of Disney’s investment dollars and thousands of jobs,” the complaint alleged. “This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional.”

In response, the governor’s communications director Taryn Fenske told The Independent that “we are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state”. The statement continued, “This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law,”

Only days later, on 1 May, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District agreed to sue the company in state court.

By May, Disney said it canceled its plans to build a $1bn office complex in the state, which would have brought thousands of jobs to the area.

Disney’s theme park and consumer products chair Josh D’Amaro told employees in an email, “I remain optimistic about the direction of our Walt Disney World business.” He mentioned that the company has still planned $17bn in projects over the next decade at its Disney World campus. “I hope we’re able to,” he said.

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