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Sunday May 22nd

Florida Governor Revokes Disney’s Special Tax District Over “Don’t Say Gay” Feud

<p><a href="https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2022C/4C" target="">Senate Bill 4C</a> seeks to dissolve a number of special tax districts in Florida, most important among them being the Reedy Creek Improvement District(Image created by Lauren Schweighardt/Graphic Designer).</p>

Senate Bill 4C seeks to dissolve a number of special tax districts in Florida, most important among them being the Reedy Creek Improvement District(Image created by Lauren Schweighardt/Graphic Designer).

By Connor Carlin

Staff Writer

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) took his feud with the Walt Disney Corporation into a new phase on April 22 following the Governor’s signing of an act to dissolve a special tax district owned and operated by Disney. The move is seen as a retaliation for Disney’s opposition to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics, which seeks to restrict discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in Florida schools. 

Senate Bill 4C seeks to dissolve a number of special tax districts in Florida, most important among them being the Reedy Creek Improvement District(RCID). Granted to Disney by Florida through a 1967 agreement, the district has allowed the media giant to operate its 25,000 acres of property spanning Orange and Osceola counties essentially as a municipal government. Disney has used this power to, as the district’s owner and largest property owner, effectively to levy taxes on itself which then are used to fund its own fire-and-medical response services, water and roadwork and even generate some of its own electricity. 

It is important to assess the magnitude of Disney’s impact on the economy and politics of the state. The company’s theme parks and resorts employ around 80,000 people, bring in over 50 million annual visitors and generate $5 billion in state and local taxes through tourism to the state economy. On top of this, through its circular tax arrangement, Disney pays roughly $280 million annually in property taxes to Orange and Osceola counties, alongside about $250 million in other state taxes, making it the largest taxpayer in Central Florida. 

Critics of the Governor’s decision have claimed that, should RCID cease to exist, Florida taxpayers will be forced to absorb the costs, potentially creating a 15 to 20 percent increase in property taxes in the district. According to Orange County tax collector Scott Randolph, dissolving Reedy Creek would be no financial gain for his county, and would only saddle them to pay Disney’s approximately $1 billion in bond debt while eliminating municipal services, like fire and medical services, in the district.

DeSantis and his supporters have been adamant that Florida taxpayers will not suffer as a result of this legislation, with the Governor claiming that Disney would be paying its debts and in fact be paying more in taxes. However, they have yet to provide a financial plan which supports this assertion, and according to government law attorney Jacob Schumer, in order for DeSantis to avoid placing the burden on taxpayers, he will have to effectively create an entity with the same exact powers and privileges as RCID.

In addition to this assessment, Fitch Ratings, a federally-designated credit rating agency, has issued a Negative Watch rating to RCID as a result of Florida’s recent actions, and has stated that the state’s attempts to dismantle the district “heightens bondholder uncertainty” and could weaken the agency’s view of Florida’s commitment to bond holder rights if the government does not resolve the district’s $766 million debt issue. RCID itself has already issued a statement on this matter, presenting its own outstanding debt and language from the 1967 agreement to argue that Florida violated its terms, and that according to the law, the state cannot legally dissolve the district if it cannot first cover that debt. As a result, RCID has stated that until the debt can be covered, Disney will operate business as usual.

The debacle over Reedy Creek originated from Disney coming out publicly against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which DeSantis signed on March 28. The bill prohibits classroom instruction involving sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and discussions in older grades which are “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” Its vague wording has been roundly criticized for opening the door to potential widespread censorship of LGBTQ issues in Florida schools, along with its provision allowing parents to sue for damages and attorney fees if a school district does not resolve their complaint about a child’s education.

Disney eventually joined the chorus of opposition, and CEO Bob Chapek stated that the company wished to see it repealed, that it stood by its LQBTQ employees, and that all political contributions from the company would be paused. However, this response only came after widespread backlash to Disney’s initial silence on the issue, compounded by Chapek’s defense of Disney’s past contributions of a combined $299,126 to supporters of the bill.

Backlash to Disney’s initial response was indicative of the fraught and complicated relationship between the company and the LGBTQ community. Disney’s current dominance dating back to the so-called “Disney Renaissance” of the 1980s and 90s was built largely off the backs of queer artists and creators. Openly gay musician Elton John wrote songs for “The Lion King,” which became the highest grossing film of 1994. “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” were also heavily influenced in their music and productions by Howard Ashman, a gay lyricist and playwright who was posthumously awarded an Oscar for Best Original Song in 1992 for “Beauty and the Beast.”

Despite this and its passionate, loyal LGBTQ fanbase, Disney has been reticent to embrace queerness in its media. A week after Chapek’s statement, LGBTQ employees of the animation studio Pixar issued a letter accusing its parent company of not only cynically capitalizing off of LGBTQ acceptance while “stepping back” from actually defending LGBTQ civil rights. The letter also notes that “nearly every moment of overtly gay affection” in Pixar’s films is cut by Disney, following a trend of Disney consistently relegating queerness or queer characters to the margins despite declarations that each of Disney’s films since at least 2010 will feature “the first gay Disney character.” 

What DeSantis aims to do in attacking such a powerful entity is perhaps multi-faceted, though critics have not agreed with the Governor’s proposed reasoning that he is legitimately trying to make the massive corporation more accountable. For one, prior to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, DeSantis, who has taken money from Disney just as most of the Republican-led government of Florida has, approved numerous pieces of legislation benefiting Disney and has been unwilling to go after the numerous tax breaks that Florida still affords the media company. 

DeSantis has framed his standoff with the corporation as him standing up against corporate interests and defending the rights of parents over their children’s education. Though, DeSantis’s supporters, including his press secretary, have chosen to label the bill as an “anti-grooming bill” to prevent the oversexualization of children, harkening back to homophobic attacks equating the LGBTQ community with pedophilia.

The Governor is up for reelection in 2022, and observers say that moves like dissolving Reedy Creek put him in a good position for victory. Looking to the future, though, DeSantis has emerged as the far-right’s ideal presidential candidate in 2024, should former President Trump not seek to reclaim his office. While his fight with Disney has helped him score points in the culture war for now, it is yet to be seen where this incident will help or hurt DeSantis in the long run, or what the fate of RCID will be.




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