A Florida judge should rule without trial against Disney as the company fights Gov. Ron DeSantis’ takeover of a board that oversees Walt Disney World, the Republican governor’s appointees said in a Tuesday court filing.
Members of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District asked the state judge in Orlando for a summary judgment that would rule in their favor on five of the nine counts in their case.
The case is one of two lawsuits stemming from the takeover, which was retaliation for Disney’s public opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation championed by DeSantis and Republican lawmakers. In the other lawsuit, in federal court in Tallahassee, Disney says DeSantis violated the company’s free speech rights.
The ongoing political firestorm, which has seen multiple lawsuits and countersuits from both sides, stems from what has largely been seen as a politically targeted response over Disney’s reaction to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade.
In 2022, then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek condemned the law at the company’s annual shareholder meeting after initially deciding not to speak publicly on the matter.
In response, DeSantis signed a bill into law that allows him to take control of the company’s long-standing special tax district, formerly known as Reedy Creek.
A municipal district that covers Disney’s sprawling campus was first implemented in 1967, effectively allowing Disney to control its own land use and zoning rules and operate its own public services, including water, sanitation, emergency services and infrastructure maintenance, without burdening local taxpayers.
The governor dissolved that board earlier this year and appointed members to a newly created district promising to end “special privileges” for the company.
Disney’s federal lawsuit accuses the governor’s administration of waging a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District, the governing jurisdiction and special taxing district for Disney World, originated in 1967 in order to give Disney control of its land use, zoning rules and public services without putting a tax burden on Florida residents. Disney was responsible for footing the costs of those services. But the governor wanted to destroy that longstanding arrangement.
On 19 April, Republican state Rep Randy Fine introduced the “Independent Special Districts,” which aimed to dissolve Disney’s special district, Reedy Creek.
Florida state lawmakers vooiced concerns that dissolving Reedy Creek would not only be in violation of state law, but would also force taxpayers to fund infrastructure projects that Disney was effectively paying for through the district’s arrangement.
Instead, a new plan was hatched. By February 2023, Governor DeSantis signed a bill that effectively allowed Florida to take over the new district and its taxing abilities, with a five-member board made up of his own appointees. Reedy Creek’s replacement is called the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.”
Orlando-area Democratic state representative Anna Eskamani criticised the move in a statement: “All this bill does is rename Reedy Creek and allow Governor DeSantis to appoint hostile conservative cronies to a new board. She continued, “Disney still maintains the same tax breaks – but their First Amendment rights have been suppressed, and it sends a message to any private individual or company that if you don’t purport to what the governor wants, then you’ll be punished.”
“Today, the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” Mr DeSantis said at the time. “There’s a new sheriff in town and accountability will be the order of the day.”
On 26 April, Disney filed a federal lawsuit against the governor, claiming a “targeted campaign of government retaliation.” The lawsuit stated, “Disney regrets that it has come to this.”
“At the governor’s bidding, the state’s oversight board has purported to ‘void’ publicly noticed and duly agreed development contracts, which had laid the foundation for billions of Disney’s investment dollars and thousands of jobs,” the complaint alleged. “This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional.”
In response, the governor’s communications director Taryn Fenske told The Independent that “we are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state”. The statement continued, “This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law,”
Only days later, on 1 May, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District agreed to sue the company in state court.
“I don’t think Ron DeSantis is a conservative, based on his actions toward Disney,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said this spring.
Former President Donald Trump called it “so unnecessary.”
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