Sounding as if he both distrusts Central Florida governments and wants to reassure taxpayers, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday the state would not let local governments inherit debt or responsibility from the soon-to-be-dissolved special government serving Walt Disney World.
DeSantis said the state will probably run the special district government that replaces the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which DeSantis and the Legislature set to abolish in June 2023. The Governor made those comments at a Sanford news conference on state nursing program money Monday.
And the taxpayers that are currently in that district — Disney — will inherit the debt, estimated at $766 million, DeSantis added.
The Governor on Monday managed to criticize both Disney and the Democratic-dominated Orange and Osceola county governments as he explained his endgame plan for the Special Session bill pushed through in a hurry last month to abolish Reedy Creek.
“Even though there are ways where you can potentially have local communities absorb jurisdiction over Disney, after seeing them threatening to raise taxes on their citizens, we are not going to be in a situation of giving them local control,” DeSantis said. “More likely, the state will simply assume control.”
Critics had charged that DeSantis was punishing Disney for speaking out against his culture wars agenda. After SB 4C was approved, the critics’ next reaction was concern that there was risk that Reedy Creek’s debt could be passed on to local taxpayers, forcing local tax increases.
Even Monday, DeSantis did not make a significant effort to refute charges that the Reedy Creek bill, SB 4C, was pushed through and signed last month was a response to The Walt Disney Company’s opposition to the controversial parental rights bill (HB 1557). DeSantis had signed that bill as Democrats and other opponents labeled it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
DeSantis repeated the contention that he and other supporters of SB 4C have made before: that it simply was time, in a Special Session, to deal with the odd situation of Disney governing itself in Florida for the past 55 years.
Still, on Monday he did suggest that transferring the debt away, as critics had surmised might happen, wouldn’t serve to punish Disney.
“The same people who criticize me saying, ‘You’re punishing Disney,’ are also saying we’re going to relieve Disney of $766 million in debt? How would that be a punishment?” DeSantis said. “I mean it makes no sense.”
“That debt will not end up going to any of these local governments,” DeSantis continued.
He then said that — if he is re-elected in November — he and the Legislature intend to fashion a bill for the 2023 Legislative Session that would transfer control of the district to the state and the debt to Disney.
“Obviously, with Reedy Creek, the path forward is Disney will not control its own government in the state of Florida. Disney will have to follow the same laws as every other company in the state of Florida. They will pay their fair share of taxes, and they will be responsible for paying the debts,” DeSantis said.
The proposal also would revoke some of the powers designated for Reedy Creek when the district was first created by the Legislature in 1967, including giving Reedy Creek the powers to use eminent domain and to do annexations outside of the district, DeSantis vowed.
The same review would be applied to five other, much smaller independent special districts that predate Florida’s 1968 Constitution, which the Governor referred to as “legacy special districts that had power that was just unacceptable.”
“Of course, all of that will be dealt with,” DeSantis said.
As for Osceola and Orange counties — officials in the latter had suggested it could require a 15% property tax increase if the county has to assume Reedy Creek’s debt — DeSantis suggested that talk was a cover for other intentions.
“From our perspective at the state, any local government raising taxes on their citizens is (not justified) to do that. There is not going to be any basis to do it because they are not going to have any additional liability,” DeSantis said.