Ron DeSantis' Disney Revenge Could Cost Florida Residents $1 Billion

Residents of two Florida counties could end up footing the bill if the state abolishes a special district that has allowed the Walt Disney Company to operate its own local government.

State Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, a Democrat, warned on Tuesday that residents of Orange and Osceola counties may have to assume Disney's liabilities of anywhere between $1 billion and $2 billion if the Reedy Creek Improvement District is dissolved.

Efforts to dissolve Disney's special district, along with five others, come amid Republican criticism of the company for its public opposition to a controversial new education law that critics have dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" law.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is seen as a future presidential contender, called on lawmakers to revoke the special status of the Reedy Creek Improvement District amid the ongoing dispute between Disney and his administration over the Parental Rights in Education law.

Republicans, who control both chambers of the Florida state legislature, have brought forward a pair of bills to revoke the special status Disney has enjoyed since 1967 in governing the area in central Florida where Walt Disney World is located.

Democrats in the state Senate proposed an amendment to that chamber's bill on Tuesday that would have required a study to be conducted about the potential impact of the proposed law, rather than ending the special status after a year, as the bill states. The amendment was defeated in a voice vote.

Potential Impact

Farmer, who sponsored the bill, discussed the potential impact on Orange and Osceola counties' residents, saying the population would amount to around 1.75 million people.

"The debt service alone for Reedy Creek is over $1 billion," Farmer said. "This bill makes no provision as to how that debt service is going to be assumed."

The Democrat pointed to another law that said that local government entities would have to pick up the debt of special districts that are dissolved.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District has a long-term bonded debt of $977,215,801, according to its 2021 annual financial report.

"So this is not supposition, this is not conjecture, this is Florida law that says those 1.7 million people are going to have to pick up this bill," Farmer said, adding that the $1 billion figure doesn't include other items covered by the district, citing fire fighter services and parking garages, among other services.

"All totaled, we're probably talking about $1.5 to $2 billion of obligation - of liabilities," Farmer said.

He went to say that "the debt service alone would amount to $580 per person."

"Family of four just got hit with a $2,200 tax bill," Farmer said.

He argued that the residents affected should have a say in whether they would be prepared to take on those liabilities and that other counties could face similar problems and be less able to shoulder the bill than Orange and Osceola counties.

"It's shoot first and ask questions later," Farmer said.

State Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican, also expressed worries over Disney's liabilities, saying: "My concern is this bill essentially wipes away Disney's $2 billion of debt," adding: "If the legislative intent here is ultimately to attack them, then why would we want to cancel $2 billion of debt?"

State Senator Jennifer Bradley, who introduced the bill, said that the debt would likely be assumed by the "general purpose government." That could potentially mean the counties involved.

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 faced criticism for not condemning the legislation, including from some of its employees, but the company later said it would help in efforts to repeal the law or have it struck down in the courts.

Newsweek has contacted Governor Ron DeSantis' office and Disney for comment.

Ron DeSantis Gives a Press Conference
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media about the cruise industry during a press conference at PortMiami on April 8, 2021, in Miami, Florida. Republican lawmakers have introduced bills to revoke a special district where Disney operates its own local government. Joe Raedle/Getty Images