Ron DeSantis' Disney Attack Shows He's Grown Beyond Florida

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis could benefit politically from his dispute with the Walt Disney Company, and the media attention the matter has attracted may show he's grown beyond his state and is taking his place on the national stage.

DeSantis, who is seen as a strong contender for the 2024 presidential nomination, called on the state legislature to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), which allows Disney to run its own local government in the area of central Florida where its theme parks are located.

That move has come as DeSantis has taken aim at Disney for its public opposition to the new education law that critics have dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" law, which came into effect on March 28.

That law - and Disney's reaction to it - have become part of a much broader issue among conservatives who are opposed to what they describe as "woke" policies.

The law, known as the Parental Rights in Education law, prohibits "classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner."

Disney had initially faced criticism, including from some its employees, for not speaking out against the law, but later came out forcefully against it, pledging to work to have the law repealed or struck down in the courts.

The Florida state Senate handed DeSantis a win on Wednesday when it passed a bill that would sunset the RCID as of June 1, 2023. The bill will still need to be approved in the Florida House of Representatives, with a vote expected on Thursday.

Experts who spoke to Newsweek suggested that DeSantis' feud with Disney will play well with Republican voters nationwide, but that there could be negative effects on some taxpayers in Florida.

Walking the Walk

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek that DeSantis was positioning himself as a Republican who takes action on issues GOP voters care about.

"DeSantis' latest maneuver against Disney is more evidence of how Florida's governor looks to position himself for a 2024 bid: as the candidate who's not just talking the talk, but walking the walk," Gift said.

"While Trump may be the master of using rhetoric to stoke the culture wars, DeSantis can say he's been in the trenches actually fighting these battles," Gift said.

Former President Donald Trump is still the favored candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination and has repeatedly teased another run at the White House, while DeSantis has been emerging as a potentially viable alternative for months.

'Woke' Disney

Richard Foglesong, a retired professor of political science at Rollins College, Florida, told Newsweek that the governor's approach will appeal to those voters who may be key to his presidential ambitions.

"Ron DeSants' attack on Disney for being 'woke' will warm the heart of Republican presidential primary voters, should he run," Foglesong said.

"This attention comes with two liabilities, however. Donald Trump and corporate America may both feel more threatened by him," he added.

Thomas Gift said that DeSantis was staking out a position for himself amid the so-called "culture wars."

"Whether it's Critical Race Theory, a 'Don't Say Gay' bill, or Mickey and Minnie going woke, DeSantis is framing himself as the ultimate culture warrior taking dead aim at far-left targets," Gift said.

"For DeSantis, revoking Disney's special governing status is just another opportunity he can use to prove his mettle as the ultimate Republican foot soldier," he said.

Liabilities

However, potentially dissolving Disney's Reedy Creek Improvement District also carries liabilities - including financial ones.

Chris Lyon, a Florida attorney and lobbyist who has been representing special districts before the Florida legislature for nearly 20 years, told Newsweek that it was likely Disney would seek to have the RCID re-established during the 2023 session of the Florida legislature, which will begin in March of that year - before the terminal date of June 1, 2023.

Lyon said he found it hard to imagine "all of the ramifications" of the RCID being dissolved.

"RCID lies within Orange and Osceola counties and also contains the cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista," Lyon explained. "Pursuant to law, all RCID assets and liabilities would be transferred to those cities and counties"

Lyon said that he understood that RCID "has a significant amount of outstanding bonds that these local governments would be responsible for repaying."

"But they would also be transferred all RCID assets which would include buildings, equipment, power stations, infrastructure, roads, etc.," he said.

"The cities and counties would have to come up with a plan on how these assets and liabilities would be distributed," Lyon said.

Taxpayers

Lyon also noted that RCID would "lose its tax authority to raise revenue for its operations" with potential effects on the localities involved.

"The four cities and counties would possibly have to raise taxes on property within their jurisdictions to fund former RCID operations and debt service," he said.

Florida State Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, a Democrat, warned on Tuesday that residents of Orange and Osceola counties may have to foot the bill for around $1 billion in Disney's liabilities.

The RCID has a long-term bonded debt of $977,215,801, according to its 2021 annual financial report. Senator Farmer argued that the bill could amount to as much as $2 billion when the cost of local services such as fire fighting and parking garages are included.

"Disney taxes itself through Reedy Creek to pay for infrastructure and services," Richard Foglesong told Newsweek.

"Let DeSantis defend switching those costs to taxpayers and see how they like it," he said.

Fogelson also suggested Disney in Florida would cope with the loss of the special district, saying that Disneyland in California "works just fine without a private government."

Ron DeSantis Holds a Press Conference
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference held at the Assault Brigade 2506 Honorary Museum on August 5, 2021, in Hialeah, Florida. DeSantis' dispute with Disney could prove politically beneficial to the potential presidential contender. Joe Raedle/Getty Images