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DeSantis eyes state takeover of Disney’s special district

DeSantis, a Republican, told reporters Monday that it is fairer for other businesses if the state controls the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the special district that, since 1967, has essentially allowed the Walt Disney Company to control the land around its properties.

“The path forward is Disney will not control its own government in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “Disney will have to follow the same laws that every other company has to follow the state of Florida. They will pay their fair share in taxes.”

The remarks offered the first glimpse into DeSantis’ plan for Reedy Creek after the governor and Republican lawmakers passed a new law last month to dissolve the district in a special session — a move that critics have said was retaliation for Disney speaking out against a new Florida law that will limit what schools can teach about sexual orientation and gender identity. The fate of Disney, Florida’s largest employer, and the district’s existing debt remains unclear in the weeks after the contentious vote.

Democrats and local officials have suggested that local governments and taxpayers in the surrounding counties of Osceola and Orange could be on the hook for that debt if Reedy Creek ceases to exist. That opinion is supported by Reedy Creek in a recent statement to its bondholders and an analysis by the state Senate, which concluded in April that local government “assume all indebtedness of the preexisting special district.”

But DeSantis promised local and state taxpayers would not have to pay for Reedy Creek’s outstanding debt, which officials have said is about $1 billion. He said the government would likely collect more taxes once Disney’s special status is eliminated once it’s on more equal footing with other theme parks operating in Florida.

“More likely that the state will simply assume control and make sure that we’re able to impose the law and make sure we’re collecting the taxes,” he said.

DeSantis did not provide details on how the state would assume control of Reedy Creek. In Florida, the governor appoints board members who oversee many of the state’s special districts. Before this new law, Reedy Creek board members were people who owned property within the district’s boundaries — primarily people with ties to Disney.

It is unlikely that a plan for Reedy Creek and Disney will be finalized until after the November elections, DeSantis said, because he wants input from incoming legislative leaders. The new law that would dissolve Reedy Creek does not take effect until June 2023.

But DeSantis was adamant that he does not believe stewardship of Reedy Creek and its government duties — including operating the fire department, water systems, roadways and building inspectors for Disney’s properties — should fall to local governments.

“First of all, it’d be a cash cow for them if they had Disney,” DeSantis said. “But I’m worried that they would use that as a pretext to raise taxes on people when that’s what they would want to do anyways and then try to blame Reedy Creek, so we’re not going to give them that opportunity.”

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