DeSantis wants to end Disney World's special status in Florida
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Florida's pugnacious Republican governor Ron DeSantis squared off today against a heavyweight opponent, the Walt Disney Company. In a surprise move, DeSantis expanded the agenda of a special legislative session to include a bill that would revoke Walt Disney World's status as a, quote, "independent special district." Florida gave Disney that special status more than 50 years ago. It grants the company self-governing authority and exempts it from nearly all state regulations.
NPR's Greg Allen has been following this story and joins us now. Hey, Greg.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Florida is nearly synonymous with Walt Disney World for many people all over the world. So after all these years, why does Governor DeSantis want to revoke Disney's special status?
ALLEN: Well, you know, Governor DeSantis has gained a national profile in the Republican Party by attacking what he calls woke values and policies in schools and businesses. He broke with longstanding tradition among governors and other officials in Florida by aiming his criticism at Disney. You know, that's one of the state's largest employers and taxpayers here in Florida. It's also one of the most powerful corporate voices in the state capital, Tallahassee.
DeSantis began by criticizing Disney World for its COVID policies, including requiring employees to wear face masks. But what really motivated this week's action, though, is Disney's opposition to the recently passed Parental Rights in Education Act, a measure critics call Don't Say Gay. Disney's CEO said he'd work to overturn it. And after he made those comments, DeSantis said he'd, quote, "crossed the line."
Florida's House speaker, Republican Chris Sprowls, was with DeSantis when he announced his plans to revoke Disney's special status today. Sprowls agrees that in its opposition to the controversial measure, Disney went too far.
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CHRIS SPROWLS: And I think using its corporate power to do that - using the benefits that the taxpayers have given them for so many years to do that - is wildly inappropriate. So I think the governor's anger was well-placed, and we're happy to take it up.
ALLEN: So far, there's been no response yet from Disney on all this.
SHAPIRO: And what would dissolving this special district do? How would it affect Disney?
ALLEN: Well, you know, it's really not clear yet. There's been very little study or discussion of its impact because this bill was just introduced earlier today. It would eliminate all independent special districts in Florida created before 1968. And it wouldn't take effect until next year. So the bill's sponsor says Disney and other special districts that are affected can come back and try to get new charters if they want.
What is clear, though, is that doing this would shift a lot of responsibility and costs for much of Disney World's infrastructure to the adjoining counties. Here's Rick Foglesong, former professor and author who wrote a book about Disney World called "Married To The Mouse."
RICK FOGLESONG: They would have to provide public services - water, sewer, fire. They would have to do building inspections. That would be an onerous job, all those special buildings and rides and whatnot.
ALLEN: You know, there are a few hundred workers directly employed by the special district, and there are thousands of more workers who are there on projects that could be affected. The bill's sponsor was asked if he'd talked to any of the workers, officials with the special district or in the nearby counties about the potential economic impact of the shake-up. And he said, no, they can come back next year, and we'll talk to them then. Democratic state Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith asked his Republican colleagues why they were rushing to consider a bill that would have such a big and still unknown impact.
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CARLOS GUILLERMO SMITH: All because one business had the gall to stand up for the LGBTQ community.
SHAPIRO: Now, I say this comes during a special session that is considering a new Republican-friendly congressional map drawn by DeSantis. Is he going to win on both these measures?
ALLEN: It appears so at this point. Republicans have a majority in both the House and Senate, and so far, they've shown very little sign of rebelling against the governor's agenda here.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Thank you.
ALLEN: You're welcome.
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