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Florida lawmakers vote to strip Disney of self-governing privileges, special tax status

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Mark Ashman/Disney Parks via Getty Images

Florida’s Republican-led House voted Thursday to strip Walt Disney World's self-governing privileges and special tax status.

SB 4-C – which was introduced by Republican state Sen. Jennifer Bradley (R) on Tuesday – passed the state Senate on Wednesday with a vote of 23-16 and was easily approved by the House of Representatives with a vote of 70-38 on Thursday.

The bill "dissolves certain independent special districts; authorizes reestablishment of certain independent special districts."

The bill now heads to the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who is expected to sign the bill into law.

On Tuesday, DeSantis urged Florida lawmakers to consider the "termination of all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968 and that includes the Reedy Creek Improvement District."

The Reedy Creek Improvement Act was signed into law in May 1967 by Gov. Claude Kirk to motivate the Walt Disney Company to build a theme park in Florida.

Disney became the primary landowner of 25,000 acres in the counties of Orange and Osceola, which would be transformed into Walt Disney World on Oct. 1, 1971.

"In 1964, Walt Disney used fake companies and secret deals to begin quietly snapping up the land in Central Florida that would later become Walt Disney World. Those shenanigans allowed him to purchase acres upon acres of swamp without suspicion, while keeping prices low," according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Of the Reedy Creek Improvement Act, the New York Post reported, "The agreement has given Disney wide-ranging autonomy over environmental protections and public services, as well as control over local police and fire departments on the land where the Florida theme park sits. Disney has also been responsible for operating and maintaining public roads and bridges."

The Reedy Creek Improvement Act allowed the Walt Disney World Company to operate a special taxing district "that would act with the same authority and responsibility as a county government," according to the Reedy Creek Improvement District website.

"The new legislation said that landowners within the Reedy Creek Improvement District, primarily Walt Disney World, would be solely responsible for paying the cost of providing typical municipal services like power, water, roads, fire protection etc," the site states. "Local taxpayers, meaning residents of Orange and Osceola County, would not have to pay for building or maintaining those services."

At a press conference last month, DeSantis declared, "What I would say as a matter of first principle is I don’t support special privileges in law just because a company is powerful and they’ve been able to wield a lot of power. I think what has happened is there’s a lot of these special privileges that are not justifiable, but because Disney had held so much sway, they were able to sustain a lot of special treatment over the years."

DeSantis and Disney have locked horns over the Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits Florida school employees from engaging in classroom discussions about sexual orientation or gender.

Disney released a statement shortly after DeSantis signed the parental rights bill into law.

"Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law," Disney said. "Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that. We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country."

DeSantis fired back at the entertainment behemoth.

"Look, there’s policy disputes, and that’s fine, but when you're trying to impose a woke ideology on our state, we view that as a significant threat," DeSantis said earlier this month. "This wokeness will destroy this country if we let it run unabated. So in Florida, we take a very big stand against that."

According to CNBC, "Dissolving the district would mean Reedy Creek employees and infrastructure would be absorbed by the local counties, which would then become responsible for all municipal services. The counties would collect the tax revenue Disney currently pays the Reedy Creek District, but would also be saddled with the district's liabilities. Namely, its debt."

The Reedy Creek District historically operates at a loss of approximately $5 million to $10 million each year, according to financial reports. However, Disney has the wherewithal to subsidize the operations with its theme park revenue.

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