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Disney loses special district status in fight with Florida GOP  

Critics say opposition to a new state law banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade put the House of Mouse in Republican leaders' crosshairs.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — The GOP-controlled Florida Legislature voted to remove Disney’s self-governing status on Thursday, following a months-long battle over the corporate giant’s opposition to the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Republican lawmakers introduced the bill during a special session called by Governor Ron DeSantis to handle congressional redistricting.

SB 4C dissolves independent special districts created before 1968, including the Reedy Creek district containing the Disney World theme park, in June 2023 unless a new agreement is reached. The bill also affects five other special districts, though Disney’s district is by far the largest and most impactful.

Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The company lobbied for the special district more than 50 years ago that allows it to act as a county government. Disney owns the roads and utilities in the 25,000-acre district, plus operates a police force and fire department.

Unless Disney and the state government reach another agreement, the special district will dissolve and all assets and liabilities will be transferred to local governments, according to the bill’s language. Disney would also lose the ability to construct new buildings or roads without local oversight and potentially cumbersome zoning restrictions.

SB 4C is widely considered to be retaliation for Disney’s opposition to the state’s Parental Rights in Education law, known more commonly as the "Don't Say Gay" law, which bans the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity topics from kindergarten through third grade. Disney heavily criticized the bill, signed into law by DeSantis last month, and vowed to end any political contributions to state lawmakers.

“Disney and other woke corporations won’t get away with peddling their unchecked pressure campaigns any longer,” DeSantis said in a fundraising email on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported. “If we want to keep the Democrat machine and their corporate lapdogs accountable, we have to stand together now.”

Critics say the law could cost hundreds of workers their jobs and potentially encumber local governments with $1 billion in bond debt owed by Disney.

“We’ve pulled out the rug from underneath all of these workers and businesses, and really pulling out the rug from underneath Central Florida’s economy,” said state Representative Carlos Smith, a Democrat. “All because one business had the gall to stand up for the LGBTQ community. That’s what this is about.”

The bill targeting Disney's special status, announced by DeSantis on Tuesday, sailed through the legislative process. The Florida House passed the bill dissolving independent special districts 70-38 along party lines Thursday afternoon. The Florida Senate passed a companion bill the day prior. The governor is expected to sign the bill.

The hurried process leaves a lot of questions about how the legislation will affect Disney and the surrounding communities as there was no fiscal impact statement presented during debate.

“There is little understanding of the full impact these districts could face, as well as the state of Florida,” said David Ramba, executive director of the Florida Association of Special Districts, in a statement. “We do, however, appreciate the 14-month period before the impact of the law takes effect so we can fully investigate what this would mean to the six districts.”

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