Disney: Facing Fight Over Florida’s Don’t Say Gay

Florida Over “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Fight

Republican lawmakers have proposed the repeal of 1967 law that gives the company the authority to govern itself. How real is that backlash?

A fight between Disney and Florida over the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill has made state lawmakers threaten to strip the company of special privileges that essentially give it the sovereignty to act as its own government.

Backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, some Republican lawmakers have called for the repeal of a 1967 law permitting the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The legislation affords Disney the authority to act as its own county with the ability to impose taxes, adopt ordinances and provide emergency services on land that’s home to its sprawling theme park resort, among other powers of self-government.

“As a matter of first principle, I don’t support special privileges in law just because a company is powerful,” DeSantis said March 31 at a news conference. “They’ve lost a lot of the pull that they used to have, and honestly, I think that’s a good thing for our state. You should not have one organization that is able to dictate policy in all these different realms, and they have done that for many, many years. If that stops now, which it should, that would be a good thing for Florida.”

 

illustration of Bob Chapek bowing down to a giant Mickey Mouse

But Disney wields unparalleled clout and leverage as Florida’s largest employer and driver of economic activity.

A study evaluating its impact on the tourism industry found that it accounts for $75.2 billion in annual spending, 463,000 jobs and an additional $5.8 billion in state tax revenue, according to Oxford Economics.

Rep. Anna V. Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando, remains confident the law will stay in place.

“It’s truly performative,” she says, noting that DeSantis has avoided directly answering whether he supports stripping Disney of its autonomy. “Republican leadership aren’t the ones who’re vocal on this. It doesn’t seem like they’ve put their weight behind any of this. The vocal ones are the outliers.”

Part of the reasoning is that Florida’s legislative session has already ended. While a special session has been called to start April 18 to address redrawing congressional maps, it would have to be amended to include other proposals.

Eskamani says, “It’s highly unlikely they’d amend, but crazier things have happened in Florida. I just highly doubt the Florida Senate would entertain that.”

She notes that no analysis has been conducted on the economic impact of Reedy Creek and the fallout of what would happen if it were eliminated. The primary concern is the strain on the counties, Orange and Osceola, that would then oversee Disney. Under the law, the company and its residents bear the cost of maintaining its resort, including paying for emergency and waste management services.

A Disney representative in 2019 said, “Central Florida taxpayers are not burdened with additional costs of maintaining our infrastructure.”

Even if a bill to repeal the law is formally proposed, Disney has proved successful in influencing governmental affairs. It was able to secure a special exemption from a law that aimed to prohibit social media platforms from deplatforming political candidates. The bill was amended so it wouldn’t apply to a “company that owns and operates a theme park or entertainment complex.”

Disney was also able to pass a ballot initiative in 2018 that was designed to strip the authority to expand gambling from lawmakers and give it to voters. The measure was intended to limit casinos in the state, as the company considers them an alternative to spending money at its theme parks.

This followed a 2012 scandal in which a Disney lobbyist was caught by local press convincing commissioners in Orange County, Florida, to delay placement of a ballot measure that would require sick leave to be extended to employees.

Some critics have also called into question the hundreds of millions of dollars Florida gives to Disney in tax breaks. Most recently, the company was granted nearly $580 million in tax credits when it moved roughly 2,000 jobs from California to Florida.

DeSantis, however, pushed back on the notion that there are special carve-outs for Disney, saying, “People have been reporting that they’re getting all this. … And I think what people are pointing to is just a general program that we have for every business. But there are no special tax breaks that are Disney-specific.”

Stripping Disney of its tax breaks would mean reconsidering Florida’s entire corporate tax structure, which the governor hasn’t proposed.

When asked if he plans to make any changes that would impact Disney’s operation in the state, DeSantis said it’s not his decision: “It’s really going to be up to the Legislature to reevaluate.”