Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday undid a looming $1.2 billion tax hike on Central Florida residents that he inadvertently imposed a year ago in a hastily passed bill meant to punish Walt Disney Co. for criticizing his so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.
“The corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” the Republican said, taking the lectern at a firehouse on Disney property.
Monday’s law cancels the scheduled dissolution of a special taxing district for the 25,000 acres owned by Disney south of Orlando, which lawmakers passed and DeSantis signed into law over a three-day span last April.
A month earlier, then-Disney CEO Bob Chepak told the company’s employees that he regretted not vocally opposing the Parental Rights in Education Act and said he would suspend political donations in Florida.
That legislation, nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, prohibits teachers in the early grades from discussing sexuality or gender. Critics argue it prevents teachers in same-sex marriages, for example, from mentioning their spouses.
DeSantis and his allies said that Disney should not be given special privileges. But an unintended consequence of last April’s law was to transfer Disney’s outstanding debt onto the 700,000 homeowners and businesses in Orange and Osceola counties.
Had that law taken effect on June 1 as scheduled, their tax bills would have increased by thousands of dollars per year until 2038, when the bonds the Reedy Creek Improvement District issued to pay for roads and other public works on Disney property would finally be paid off.
Such a tax hike would have been a political disaster for DeSantis, who is expected to announce his presidential bid later this spring. The urgency of resolving the matter was reflected in his decision to include it during a special legislative session this month rather than wait for the start of the regular session in early March. Florida governors historically have had far more control of legislation during a special session than the regular 60-day session, in which bills often get cluttered with extraneous language and caught up in horse-trading.
The bill DeSantis signed into law Monday repeals last April’s Disney law and gives him and future governors the task of appointing the board for Disney’s taxing district, which was renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. It otherwise leaves untouched the district’s ability to issue bonds to pay for improvements on Disney property.
DeSantis said he planned to formally appoint a new five-person board later Monday. While those individuals previously had been chosen by Disney, they will now be DeSantis allies ― including Bridget Ziegler, the wife of the state Republican Party chairman.
During Monday’s 45-minute bill signing, DeSantis used repeated misrepresentations and outright falsehoods to describe both Disney’s previous and new tax and regulatory frameworks.
For example, DeSantis claimed that Disney would finally be forced to pay its “fair share” that it avoided in the past. “You had infrastructure feeding into the theme park that was paid for by all the citizens of Central Florida, and Disney really got a free ride on that. Now they can be taxed for that,” he said.
In fact, Disney property has one of the highest total tax rates in the state. It pays all the taxes due to the counties and school boards for its acreage, and then pays additional “mills” for roads, water and sewage, utilities, and fire and police protection on its own property.
At another point, DeSantis suggested that Disney’s spending on its own infrastructure had burdened Florida taxpayers. “They were able to get huge amounts of benefits without paying their fair share of taxes, and even racked up $700 million of municipal debt,” he said.
In reality, Disney’s bond debt is paid only by taxpayers within the Reedy Creek Improvement District boundaries ― in other words, Disney itself, except for a few small parcels it has sold to hotels.
DeSantis said the new law puts Disney on par with all of the other Central Florida attractions: “Disney is going to be treated like SeaWorld is treated or like any of these others.”
That is also not true. While under a renamed board, Disney still has its own taxing district, which Universal Studios and SeaWorld, for example, do not. And because the district is a tax-exempt entity, a parking garage on Disney property does not have to collect sales tax, while those at the other theme parks do.
DeSantis accused local governments of trying to take advantage of last year’s legislation to raise taxes. “It will prevent local governments dominated by leftist politicians from using this situation to raise local taxes,” he said of the new law.
But passing along Disney’s accumulated debt to Orange and Osceola county taxpayers was not optional for officials in those counties in the event Reedy Creek was dissolved. Rather, it is required under state law governing special districts.
DeSantis’ press office did not respond to HuffPost queries. As has been his practice during his tenure, DeSantis did not publicly disclose Monday morning’s bill signing until two hours before its start ― making it impossible for the Tallahassee capital press corps journalists who have followed the Disney legislation most closely to attend.
Instead, DeSantis invited a firefighters union leader who complained that Disney was not paying them enough; a local mother who renounced Disney because she believes it no longer provides wholesome entertainment; and a Disney World employee who used his time at the microphone to spread various falsehoods about the COVID vaccines.
DeSantis is widely expected in Florida to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, challenging coup-attempting former President Donald Trump.
His critics already criticize him for aping Trump’s personality traits to win over his voters. DeSantis on Monday provided them a bit more fodder by holding up the bill to show off his signature to the audience and the cameras ― just as Trump used to at his bill signings.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story included an inaccurate transcription of DeSantis’ comment; he said “The corporate kingdom finally comes to an end.”