Florida’s far-right governor, Ron DeSantis, has won the power to appoint the members of the board that supervises the development of the state’s famous Walt Disney World theme parks after a fight over a law that restricts sexual orientation and gender identity discussions in schools.
Disney as a result is set to lose some of the autonomy it has enjoyed in Florida during the last nearly six decades, but the company has held on to some of its key privileges amid the culture war leveled at it by DeSantis.
Nonetheless, with his usual bluster, DeSantis declared victory over the conglomerate whose mascot is Mickey Mouse, saying: “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
DeSantis directed his ire at Disney after the media titan decided to suspend political donations in Florida after the state’s legislature last year passed a “don’t say gay” law that limited mention of LGBTQ+ issues in schools.
Florida’s Orlando area is home to the 25,000-acre Disney World theme park complex, which first opened in 1971 and reportedly attracted nearly 13 million visitors last year. And to retaliate, DeSantis sought to strip Disney of a special tax district designation that let the company govern them autonomously, including by issuing tax-exempt bonds and advancing building plans without oversight from certain local authorities.
The governor’s move against Disney had the full support of the state legislature, which is controlled by his fellow Republicans and voted to strip the company of its tax district status beginning on 1 June 2023. But then the steep cost of following through on DeSantis’s wishes for Disney became apparent.
Letting the district dissolve would require taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties – which are adjacent to the theme parks – to begin paying for the firefighting, police and road maintenance services that Disney had been paying. And the counties’ taxpayers would also have to cover the Disney tax district’s debt of $1bn or so.
So this week, Florida’s legislators adjusted course. They drafted a measure that would empower the state’s governor to appoint the five members of the tax district’s controlling board. It also would leave Disney vulnerable to possibly being forced to pay taxes to fund road projects outside the theme park complex’s vicinity, and new construction costs might increase because the measure eliminated some of the company’s exemption from certain regulatory processes, the New York Times reported.
Nonetheless, the new measure would permit Disney – one of Florida’s largest private employers – to retain its special tax district status. And the board would remain powerless as far as influencing what content the company chooses to present to guests at its theme parks as well as viewers of its movies and shows.
Florida’s house of representatives approved the legislation on Thursday, and the state senate did the same on Friday.
DeSantis said the legislation definitively buried previously aired concerns that Floridians would end up paying more in taxes because of his differences with Disney.
“This puts that to bed,” DeSantis said, while also boasting that he was now the new sheriff in town.
The president of Disney World, Jeff Vahle, issued a notably apolitical statement to the Times that described the complex as “focused on the future and … ready to work within this new framework”.
Separately last week, DeSantis announced plans to block state colleges from having programs on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as on critical race theory – the study of how racism has shaped American history. That plan comes on the heels of his blocking public high schools from teaching a new advanced placement course on African American studies.
DeSantis, who has long advocated to keep firearms as accessible to the public as possible, caught some political fire on Friday after the Washington Post reported that he had asked for guns to be banned from a party celebrating his re-election to a second term last year.
DeSantis’s campaign staff also asked the Tampa city officials in control of the convention center hosting the party to take responsibility for the gun ban so as not to upset his supporters, the Post’s report added, citing emails obtained by the newspaper.
One county-level Republican leader told the Post that such a ban was “a little hypocritical” given how DeSantis has presented himself as a pro-gun rights advocate. A spokesperson for DeSantis told the Post that its reporting was “speculation and hearsay” and that the governor was “strongly in support of individuals’ constitutional right to bear arms”.
Many expect DeSantis to pursue the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential election. As of Saturday, the former president Donald Trump was the only Republican candidate to have declared an intention to challenge Democratic incumbent Joe Biden.
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