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Florida Legislature targets Disney again, nullifying previous oversight board agreement

The measure is the latest in a tit-for-tat battle playing out in the Legislature and courts between Governor Ron DeSantis’ “anti-woke” agenda and the Sunshine State’s biggest corporate giant.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — Florida lawmakers fired their latest salvo against Disney on Wednesday, passing a bill that allows the current state-backed oversight board to void any previous contracts approved by the theme park and the former Reedy Creek Development District Board.

Tucked into a land use regulation bill, the legislation specifically targets an agreement made between Disney and the outgoing board that ceded control of most operations in the 25,000-acre district to the theme park, effectively neutering the new oversight board appointed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.

“An independent special district is precluded from complying with the terms of any development agreement … executed within three months preceding the effective date of a law modifying the manner of selecting members of the governing body of the independent special district,” reads the text of the bill, SB 1604.

“Two of my most terrifying words are ‘lame duck,’” Republican state Representative William Robinson Jr., a real estate attorney, said on the state House floor before the vote. “That’s what we’re dealing with here: a lame duck board that is saddling a new board with obligations. That old board should not be saddling a new board with these types of obligations.”

Democrats derided the amendment as bad for business and a taxpayer-funded personal feud.  

“When are we going to stop playing whack-a-mouse, just because our governor is big mad that he got outsmarted by Disney?” said Democratic state Representative Anna Eskamani.

“The precedent we are setting in nullifying a contract that the majority party does not like is really unsettling,” Eskamani continued. “Beyond the Disney drama, let’s just talk about the notion of cancelling a contract that you don’t like.”

Few Republicans spoke on the bill, though state Representative Toby Overdorf noted that the state was not “outsmarted” by Disney.

“They did not follow the law,” he said.

The Republican-led Florida House passed the law along party lines, 75-34. The Florida Senate approved the bill last week. It will return to that body to approve another amendment before reaching DeSantis’ desk for his signature.

The row between DeSantis and the corporate giant began with 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, which was signed into law by DeSantis in March 2022, and vowed to end any political contributions to state lawmakers.

DeSantis immediately responded, attacking Disney as a “woke corporation” and directing the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature to remove Disney’s self-governing status that was in place for more than 50 years.

In February, DeSantis and the Florida Legislature renamed the district as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and the governor handpicked a new board of supervisors.

But before the previous board members left, they passed an agreement with Disney that allowed the company to control the district, effectively neutering the governor’s new board.

Clearly incensed, DeSantis announced a series of proposals to wrest control of the district from Disney, including placing tolls on roads within the district, new taxes and state inspections of the theme park’s monorail.

At one point, noting that the state has several miles of undeveloped land adjacent to the theme park, the governor bounced around the idea of building a prison abutting the district.

Disney responded with a federal lawsuit, accusing DeSantis and the board members of “targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech.”

“Disney regrets that it has come to this, but having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests, and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain state officials,” the complaint states.

Disney’s lawsuit, in fact, specifically mentions SB 1604.

“For extra measure, the Florida Legislature has recently advanced legislation attacking the contracts — prohibiting their enforcement unless the CFTOD board were to readopt them,” the complaint states. “Indeed, the Legislature does not seem intent on moderating its retaliatory campaign any time soon.”

On Monday, the new board countered with its own nearly 200-page lawsuit, filed in Orange County Circuit Court, seeking to invalidate the earlier agreement between Disney and the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

During the impromptu meeting of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District to vote on pursuing the lawsuit, a lone speaker called for the board members’ resignations.

“Raising taxes for your defense is wrong,” said Douglas Dickson, who vacations frequently at Disney properties. “If you take any of our money, it’s wrong. What you’re doing is wrong.”

“People asked who I was [supporting] for president? I was for DeSantis,” he continued. “Until he started this stupid war.”

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