Florida plans takeover of special Disney district

A GOP-sponsored bill giving the state authority over the district was introduced Monday and is likely to be passed in the coming days.
Florida Rep. Fred Hawkins, front, during an Elementary Education Subcommittee hearing on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Florida lawmakers have proposed a new measure to give the state authority over a special taxing district that houses the Walt Disney World resort, escalating a public feud between the company and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) that first erupted last year.

The bill introduced by state Rep. Fred Hawkins (R) on Monday, the first day of a special legislative session, would rename the Reedy Creek Improvement District as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

It would give Florida’s governor the authority to appoint the five board members tasked with overseeing the region. DeSantis would have the initial authority to appoint three board members to four-year terms, and another two members to two-year terms.

None of the board members can be Disney employees: The bill bars board members from having worked for any theme park or entertainment company as an officer, executive or contractor.

The bill does not impact existing debt, saving taxpayers from the responsibility for about $1 billion in debt held by the existing district. The new board would oversee tax collection from Disney properties in the area, and spending to pay down the existing debt.

DeSantis did not immediately issue a statement about the proposed takeover.

The new session comes 10 months after lawmakers voted to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special taxing area that has effectively been under Disney’s control since the legislature created it in 1967. DeSantis targeted the district after Disney voiced public opposition to parental rights legislation that opponents called the “don’t say gay” law.

The district, which covers about 25,000 acres in Orange and Osceola counties, has most of the authority of a traditional county under Florida law. It provides power, water and sewage services, along with emergency services.

Current board members are elected by landholders in the district, giving Disney virtual carte blanche in picking those members.

Hawkins’s bill was referred to the House State Affairs Committee. Republicans who control the legislature are likely to pass it in the coming days.