DeSantis feud with Disney enters new phase as Florida lawmakers announce special session next week
By Steve Contorno, CNN
Florida lawmakers will return to the state Capitol in Tallahassee next week to finalize their efforts to strip the Walt Disney Company of its special governing powers, the latest round of the yearlong feud between Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the entertainment giant.
In addition to settling Disney’s future, lawmakers in the GOP-controlled legislature will also consider changes to two other contentious DeSantis priorities — Florida’s new election police force and the state’s migrant transport program — to address legal concerns that have stymied their full impact, according to communications sent to members Friday afternoon by state House and Senate leaders.
The flurry of action will take place in a special legislative session beginning Monday — just weeks before lawmakers were scheduled to assemble for the state’s annual legislative session. Legislative leaders did not clearly explain why lawmakers were rushing to take on these matters in advance of their regularly scheduled meeting. But DeSantis has already begun to lay out an ambitious agenda for the 60-day regular session beginning in March that could serve as a platform for a potential 2024 presidential campaign announcement later this year.
If all goes according to the plan from Republican leaders, it could mean a new era is forthcoming for the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the government body created in 1967 that effectively gives Disney, the state’s largest employer, control over the land in and around its central Florida theme parks. DeSantis put Reedy Creek in his sights last year after Disney’s then-CEO, Bob Chapek, publicly criticized a bill to restrict certain classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity that the governor later signed into law. At DeSantis’ demand, lawmakers voted during a special legislative session last April to dissolve Reedy Creek in June 2023.
But lawmakers left town without a plan to unwind a half-century of Disney control or for how to ensure Orange and Osceola county residents wouldn’t be on the hook for funding Reedy Creek services or its $1 billion in debt. Amid the fallout, Reedy Creek told its bondholders that Florida could not dissolve the district without assuming its debts.
In the months since signing the bill to end Reedy Creek, DeSantis has repeatedly offered assurances that taxpayers wouldn’t have to pick up the tab.
Speaking at a news conference earlier this week, DeSantis said it was his intention for the state to assume control of the district.
“We’re not going to have a corporation controlling its own government; that’s going to be reverted to the state,” he said. “Disney will not have governing self-governing status anymore. We’re going to make sure that there are no special legal privileges … and then making sure they’re paying their fair share of taxes and paying the debt.”
As of Friday afternoon, the legislative framework to accomplish that had not been filed with the state. A spokesman for DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but House and Senate leaders said they were coordinating with the governor’s office.
CNN has reached out to Disney’s corporate headquarters for comment.
Florida lawmakers at the special session will also consider allowing the DeSantis administration to transport migrants from anywhere in the United States, a significant expansion of a program that gained national attention last year after Florida paid for two flights that carried migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. However, the program has stalled amid legal challenges over whether the DeSantis administration violated a state law limiting the transport to migrants from Florida.
The change, if approved, could lift a significant legal hurdle that may allow the DeSantis administration to continue operating flights transporting migrants from border states to Democratic-leaning jurisdictions. The program appears to have gone dark since the September flights to Martha’s Vineyard. In his budget proposal released this week, DeSantis indicated that transporting migrants continues to be a priority of his immigration agenda, allocating $12 million for its continuation into 2024.
According to a letter from Florida House Speaker Paul Renner’s office, the state House and Senate will consider giving DeSantis’ controversial new Office of Elections Crimes and Security the jurisdiction to prosecute crimes involving elections. The proposal comes after DeSantis initiated a crackdown on voter fraud that resulted in the arrest of 20 individuals but hit a legal snag when a judge dismissed a case against a Miami defendant on the grounds that state prosecutors had acted beyond their authority.
The agenda for next week will reprise some of the most attention-grabbing actions from DeSantis’ first term as governor. The feud with Disney, the migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard and his new election force all thrust the Republican leader into the spotlight throughout 2022, garnering doting coverage from conservative media outlets and provoking widespread condemnation from Democrats in Florida and across the country.
This story has been updated with additional information.
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