Florida lawmakers look to scuttle Disney agreements

Walt Disney World entrance in 2010. photo By Jrobertiko (Denis Adriana Macias) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jim Turner ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Republican lawmakers Wednesday backed proposals intended to nullify development agreements involving the Walt Disney Co. that incensed Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The House State Affairs Committee and the Senate Rules Committee approved amendments to broader development bills (HB 439 and SB 1604) that would override agreements the entertainment giant reached with outgoing board members of the former Reedy Creek Improvement District.

Lawmakers in February gave DeSantis power to appoint a new board for the district, which has long played a vital role for Disney.

The new “board will now have an opportunity to go back, look at any agreements that were made before they became the board and … make a decision to leave agreements in place or not,” House bill sponsor Stan McClain, R-Ocala, said.

Senate sponsor Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, called it a “reversion” of agreements “put in place at the last second” to transfer powers by the outgoing district board.

“It gives them (the new board) the option to accept the agreement or not accept,” said Ingoglia, who expects the former board’s agreements to end up in court.

But House Democrats questioned the constitutionality of targeting a single entity and using legislation to void contracts.

“I don’t like that we’re interfering with private businesses. I don’t like that the Legislature is being used as a pawn to promote some type of battle between the governor and a private entity,” said Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, a St. Petersburg Democrat who is an attorney. “You know, sometimes you just get out-lawyered.”

Also, Sen. Shervin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, said the proposal sets a bad precedent for the Legislature to “smack down” special districts and businesses that disagree with state leaders.

Under the proposal, special districts would be prohibited from complying with development agreements executed three months or less before new laws take effect that change how district board members are selected.

The amendment also would give new boards four months to review any development agreements and decide if they should be re-adopted.

After the approvals Wednesday, the bills are ready to go to the full House and Senate.

DeSantis has targeted Disney since last year when the company publicly announced opposition to a controversial state law that restricts instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

DeSantis and Republican lawmakers initially moved to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which the state created in the 1960s and essentially gave Disney control over issues such as land use, fire protection and sewer services that are typically handled by local governments.

But in February, lawmakers passed a DeSantis-backed bill that instead shifted control away from Disney and allowed DeSantis to appoint a five-member Board of Supervisors for the district. The bill also renamed the district as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

After new board members were seated, they realized the former Reedy Creek board during publicly advertised meetings had turned over most of its powers to Disney through agreements.

DeSantis on Monday announced the pending legislation and said the new board will consider how undeveloped Disney land can be used, suggesting the possibility of a state park, workforce housing or a prison.

“They thought that they could create some type of development agreements that would essentially render everything that we did null and void and put them in control in perpetuity for this,” DeSantis said of Disney and the former board. “Well, that’s not going to work. That’s not going to fly.”

Additional legislation is expected to require the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to inspect rides and attractions at Disney. The department currently inspects amusement park rides, except at facilities or parks that have more than 1,000 employees and full-time inspectors on staff.

Other large theme parks in the state aren’t expected to be affected by the changes, as DeSantis said the “inspections will be required for amusement parks within special districts.”

Disney hasn’t responded to the governor’s latest comments and proposals.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said Wednesday that “continuing the Disney versus DeSantis drama” is a distraction for lawmakers from “real-life issues.”

With DeSantis widely expected to run for president next year, the Disney fight also has drawn national attention.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another potential 2024 Republican candidate, knocked DeSantis during an interview Tuesday with Semafor Principals.

“For him to have taken the action he took against Disney and to not have foreseen that Disney was going to do what they did in response, which was to completely take over the millions and millions of acres and the zoning decisions on that before they got the authority, well, I’ll tell you this much, that’s not the guy I want sitting across from President Xi [Jinping] and negotiating our next agreement with China,” Christie said.

Former President Donald Trump, a declared 2024 candidate who has ramped up his attacks on DeSantis, posted Tuesday on Truth Social that the governor’s actions are an attempt to “save face” after being “absolutely destroyed by Disney.”

Meanwhile, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis went on Fox News Tuesday and said Disney should make amends with DeSantis.

“You don’t want to pick a fight with this guy,” Patronis said.

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