Florida Legislature special session on Reedy Creek, migrant flights & other issues

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Walt Disney World Florida map
A map showing the Walt Disney Company's land holdings and the boundaries of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. This work has been released into the public domain by its author, SPUI. It was obtained from county public records.

By Jim Turner and Ryan Dailey ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers will start a special legislative session Monday that is expected to lead to state control over the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which Gov. Ron DeSantis targeted last year after the Walt Disney Co. criticized a controversial education law.

House and Senate leaders Friday announced plans for the special session, which also is aimed at providing additional assistance to communities hit by Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole, expanding undocumented-immigrant relocation efforts, clarifying the power of the statewide prosecutor in election-crime cases and easing restrictions on compensating college athletes.

“In coordination with the governor’s office and the Florida Senate, we have identified several issues that warrant our attention in advance of the 2023 regular session,” House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Harbor, wrote in a memo to House members.

The special session will overlap with a previously scheduled week of committee meetings. The regular session will start March 7.

In a tweet, Jackson Peel, a spokesman for House Democrats, called the special session outline a “variety pack.”

Three bills for the special session were released Friday afternoon, but legislation on Reedy Creek and the athlete compensation issue had not been posted. Renner and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, gave brief descriptions of the legislation in memos sent to lawmakers.

A key focus of the session will be an overhaul of the sprawling Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special taxing district that was created for Disney in 1967 and essentially gave the entertainment giant control over issues such as land use, fire protection and wastewater services. It is in Orange and Osceola counties.

The legislation is expected to lead to a series of changes, such as the state dictating who would run the district and that the district’s debts could not be transferred to nearby local governments.

Disney angered DeSantis last year by publicly opposing a law that restricts instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in schools. As a result, Republican lawmakers passed a measure to dissolve Reedy Creek and five other special districts across the state. The dissolutions, however, do not take effect until June 1, giving time for lawmakers to re-establish the districts and make changes.

The House and Senate memos Friday indicated legislation will revise “the governance and powers” of Reedy Creek, while also reauthorizing the Sunshine Water Control District and the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District.

During appearances this week, DeSantis focused on the Reedy Creek changes and stripping Disney of its control of the district.

“It’s not right to put one company in this special status, so what we are really doing is just doing equal treatment,” DeSantis said Wednesday.

“We are not going to have a corporation controlling its own government. That’s going to revert to the state,” DeSantis added. “The state is going to have a board to run it, so Disney will not have self-governing status anymore. We are going to make sure that there are no special legal privileges and that they are abiding by the same laws. That’ll be in the bill, and we’re making sure they are paying their fair share of taxes and paying the debt.”

The immigration changes, which will be sponsored by Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, and Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, would create the “Unauthorized Alien Transport Program” within the Division of Emergency Management. The memos said the program will facilitate the “transport of unauthorized migrants who have been processed by the federal government and released into the United States.”

DeSantis sparked a national controversy in September when his administration flew about 50 migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, with a brief stop in the Florida Panhandle. The DeSantis administration tapped $12 million that was put into this year’s state budget to transport undocumented immigrants from Florida.

DeSantis on Wednesday released a budget proposal for the 2023-2024 fiscal year that called for an additional $12 million for the efforts. A potential 2024 presidential candidate, DeSantis frequently criticizes federal border policies.

“People are sick of having an open border with no rule of law in this country,” DeSantis said. “We can just sit here and do nothing about it, or we can actually stand up and say whatever tools we have at our disposal, we are going to be using.”

Among other legislation slated for the special session, lawmakers are expected to pump an additional $650 million into the Emergency Response and Preparedness Fund. That fund was created last year with $500 million so the governor could immediately distribute cash in times of emergencies such as hurricanes.

Meanwhile, lawmakers likely will allow colleges and universities to be involved in the process of steering endorsement opportunities toward student-athletes. Current law prohibits colleges and universities and their employees from causing “compensation to be directed” to the athletes.

Rep. Chip LaMarca, a Lighthouse Point Republican who has been a leader on the issue, said the proposed changes are intended to make Florida schools more competitive in recruiting against other states whose “name, image and likeness” laws do not include such a prohibition.

“While college sports are not high on my list of priorities when compared with the many other serious issues we must address each session, sporting events do contribute greatly to our local economies and the sense of community in many parts of the state; therefore, I recognize the need to address this issue in a timely manner, so our university teams can remain competitive,” Passidomo wrote in her memo Friday.

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