Florida’s fight with Disney complicated by Citizens United ruling, tax debts
TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — “I can tell you in Florida, with me in this chair? Your freedoms are protected.” Those were the words of Gov. Ron DeSantis in Destin on Thursday. The next day, he signed legislation from the state’s first special session of the year, stripping the Walt Disney Company’s Reedy Creek Improvement District of its special tax status along with five other districts created before 1968.
Since the company came out against the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, House Bill 1557, titled “Parental Rights in Education,” the governor and Florida’s Republican lawmakers have moved quickly to politically retaliate against the company for its opposition.
Multiple comments made by DeSantis and bill author Rep. Randy Fine make it clear that the effort to dissolve the Reedy Creek tax status from Disney was a reaction to the “woke” position the Disney Company had taken against the legislation.
During comments he made in March while speaking in Ponte Vedra Beach, DeSantis said the point of targeting special districts was to remove power of “woke” companies to interfere in Florida politics. The governor said Disney’s political opposition was “crossing the line” when it came to Florida and the new education law.
However, like Florida’s residents, Disney is entitled to its free speech rightsthrough federal law. Since 2010, companies like Disney have had the same rights to free speech as everyday citizens, due to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court’s in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
That ruling by SCOTUS preserved the rights of corporations to exercise political speech through campaigns, comments and contributions. As a result, Disney’s opposition to HB 1557 is protected speech.
The move to dissolve their special district’s tax status, seen as retaliation by critics, over their opposing political position could be potentially unconstitutional. The dissolution of Reedy Creek by Florida’s legislature, on a Republican majority-led voting decision with no Democratic votes in favor, could also hit taxpayers in the Magic Kingdom’s area with a big tax bill.
As of 2021, Disney owes about $1 billion in state bonds through the RCID. According to documents maintained by RCID, annual debt service is about $24 million.
While signing the bill on Friday, DeSantis called out Disney for being “based in” California, but using its “economic might” to attack Florida parents. Calling it a “provocation” DeSantis reiterated that Florida leadership would fight those efforts.
Now law, it’s not yet clear if the Walt Disney Company will be taking legal action against the change, or if they’ll attempt to renew the status of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Bill author Rep. Randy Fine (R-Brevard) said things have changed since RCID was established in 1967, and drew comparisons to Disney’s support of gay rights now, which were not legal in the 1960s.
“Look, maybe this was a good idea to do in 1967 but there’s a lot of things we allowed in 1967 that we don’t allow today,” Fine said Friday. “Ironically, gay marriage wasn’t allowed in 1967. Perhaps the people who disagree with what we’re doing and say we should stick to laws from the 1960s want to think about that one for a minute.” Fine said it was time for a change.
Disney will have until June 1, 2023 to save the system they have in place and preserve the special district, though even if successful, there could be changes to how RCID operates.