Florida lawmakers have stripped Disney of special tax status

Disney Florida Magic Kingdom
The move is widely seen as retribution for Disney's opposition to a bill that bars primary school classrooms from discussing sexual orientation.

Florida lawmakers have voted to strip Walt Disney of its special self-governing status amid a political clash between the company and the governor.

The status gave Disney powers to levy tax, build roads and control utilities on the lands of its theme park.

The entertainment conglomerate did not respond to a request for comment.

The move is widely seen as retribution for Disney’s opposition to a bill that bars primary school classrooms from discussing sexual orientation.

On Thursday, at the urging of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, the state House passed a bill that would rid the company of its near-total power over the special district where its theme park is based. It had already passed the Senate.

Known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, it was created in a 1967 deal between the state and the Walt Disney Company.

Governor DeSantis had previously made it clear he will sign the measure into law. Following the vote, Disney’s special district will be dissolved on 1 June, 2023.

Its special status had effectively allowed the company to operate as its own municipal government, with its own board of supervisors and fire department, and meant Disney could even build its own airport, or nuclear power plant if desired.

It had given the entertainment giant freedom from almost all bureaucratic intervention for half a century and is thought to have saved it from tens of millions of dollars in taxes and fees.

And it is part of why Disney chose to build its theme parks in Florida, where it has become the state’s largest private employer, with some 80,000 jobs.

But Disney’s special relationship with the state of Florida came under threat over its response to a gender and sexuality education bill signed by Mr DeSantis last month.

Formally called the Parental Rights in Education Law, it has been dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by critics. It prohibits any instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity between kindergarten and third grade – when students are roughly between five and nine years old.

It also calls on school districts to avoid LGBT topics “when not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students”. The legislation also extends to student support services, including counselling, and grants parents the power to sue schools directly if they believe an educator has broken the law.

Opponents say the law will isolate and stigmatise LGBT youth, while supporters say it protects children from age-inappropriate content.

Disney initially stayed tight-lipped on the bill, but reversed course amid pressure from employees to oppose the policy.

After it became law, Disney promised to push for its repeal and fight similar bills across the US.

In response, Mr DeSantis said the company, which has made Florida its home, had “crossed the line”.

Earlier this month, Republican lawmakers in the US Congress said they would oppose renewing the company’s copyright on Mickey Mouse in 2024 because of Disney’s “political and sexual agenda”.

Why Florida’s governor is after the Magic Kingdom (and so much more)

Analysis By Mat Morrison

The political skies are cloudy in the Sunshine State, and it could be the smoke from the culture wars below.

Governor Ron DeSantis is leading a charge, with a general’s eagerness for combat and a politician’s eye for opportunity.

Florida-based Disney is only the latest target in his crosshairs, and the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill just one of a string of conservative laws with Tallahassee origins grabbing national headlines.

There’s also been the banning of maths textbooks that the state deemed inappropriate for the classroom. That came after a bill – supported by Mr DeSantis – that makes it easier for parents to challenge books and instructional materials they disapprove of. Supporters say it gives parents a great say in their children’s education. Opponents say it’s simply censorship.

The governor has also weighed in on the battle over Twitter, vowing to take on the company’s board of directors over their tussle with Elon Musk. According to Bloomberg, Florida’s state pension fund holds roughly a million shares, which may help explain Mr DeSantis’s interest.

And to top it off, he recently signed into law a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with no exemptions for rape or incest.

The flurry of bills aimed at exciting conservative voters boils down to one important date: 5 November, 2024 – the next US presidential election day.

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