- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 28, 2022

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Republican lawmaker who sponsored legislation to end the Walt Disney Co.‘s self-governing tax district in Central Florida calls the entertainment giant’s claim that the change is illegal “patently ridiculous.”

State Rep. Randy Fine said Thursday that the legislation signed into law last week by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis eliminates a requirement that the bonds must be paid off before ending the special tax district, countering Disney‘s argument that the company’s billion-dollar debt effectively blocks the state from ending the special tax district.

“A law can prohibit something until that same law is repealed,” Mr. Fine told The Washington Times. “The same folks who falsely claimed we passed a ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill now falsely claim we have given up our state sovereignty to a private company.”

Disney representatives have not yet responded to a request for a comment.

Disney officials on Monday posted a public statement to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board indicating that Florida cannot dissolve its Reedy Creek Special Improvement District because it has not paid off $1 billion in debt.

Disney‘s statement included language from the 1967 law creating the special district, declaring Florida cannot dissolve or alter the district in any way, “until all such bonds together with interest thereon, and all costs and expenses in connection with any act or proceeding by or on behalf of such holders, are fully met and discharged.”

The posting was Disney‘s first public response since the GOP-led Legislature passed the bill revoking the theme park’s special governing district, which covers four theme parks, several hotels, a shopping district and more than 135 miles of roads.

Mr. DeSantis signed the legislation last Friday, arguing that the special tax district gave the theme park far too much autonomy and unfair perks. For example, Disney could build a nuclear power plant or an airport without seeking permits from the local governments or state. The special arrangement also provided Disney with millions of dollars in tax breaks that otherwise would have been levied on new development in the district over several decades.

The governor called on lawmakers to revoke the special tax district after Disney officials publicly opposed, and then pledged to help repeal, the Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits sex education or discussions of LGBTQ issues kindergarten through the third grade.

Critics called the legislation the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which irked Mr. DeSantis and other proponents because the legislative language does not include “gay” or make any mention LGBTQ issues.

“We signed the bill and then, incredibly, they say, we are going to work to repeal parents rights in Florida,” Mr. DeSantis said Friday as he signed the legislation repealing Disney‘s special tax district. “And I’m just thinking to myself, ‘You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re going to marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state?’ We view that as a provocation and we’re going to fight back against that.”

In public appearances over the past week, Mr. DeSantis has dismissed warnings from critics who say dissolving the district will result in tax increases for neighboring residents or will require the state to pay off Disney‘s debt.

“People are trying to say somehow that they would get a tax break out of not having their special treatment,” Mr. DeSantis said Tuesday. “Trust me, under no circumstances will Disney not pay its fair share of taxes when this is done. People have also said that somehow, because they’ve been able to run up tax free debt with these bonds that somehow the bonds are going to get dumped. Under no circumstances, will Disney be able to not pay its debts. We will make sure of that. Do not worry about that.”

• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at sferrechio@washingtontimes.com.

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