TALLAHASSEE — The Republican-controlled Florida Senate quickly voted Wednesday to dissolve Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District and to eliminate two Black districts in a congressional redistricting map that tilts the balance of the delegation more Republican.
Both measures were pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, which one Democrat called a “hijack” of the Legislature’s duties.
Lawmakers originally came to Tallahassee on Tuesday to take up a congressional map drawn by DeSantis’ office after he vetoed two maps approved by the Legislature during the regular session.
But less than an hour before the special session began, he expanded it to include a bill dissolving Reedy Creek, which independently governs the Orlando resort, and another bill retracting a special carveout that protected Disney from liability in the so-called Big Tech law from 2021.
“If you vote for this you are voting for revenge governance and the most brutal form of cancel culture, and once again voting to pick up tab for legal challenges,” said Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, of the bills. “What’s next? The governor threatened the board of directors of Twitter. What bill will magically appear in our next special session on property insurance?”
The House finished debating the three bills Wednesday afternoon and is expected to approve them Thursday, after which they’ll be sent to the governor for his signature.
Wednesday, the Senate voted 23-16 to dissolve Reedy Creek, with Sen. Jeff Brandes of Pinellas Park the only Republican to vote against Fleming Island Republican Sen. Jennifer Bradley’s bill. The Senate voted 24-15 along party lines to approve Bradley’s bill retracting the Disney carveout, which was found unconstitutional by a federal judge.
Bradley and Brandes were the only two Senate Republicans to vote against the controversial “don’t say gay” bill that prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 and limits such instruction to “age appropriate” content in all other grades.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, called the Disney bill “the penance Bradley has to pay because she voted against ‘don’t say gay.’”
“Sorry you’re in this spot, but I will treat you and your family to Disney,” Pizzo told her.
The bill dissolving Reedy Creek targets five other independent special improvement districts, all of which were created before a 1968 constitutional amendment. If the law passes, all six will be dissolved on June 1, 2023, but given a chance to be reestablished.
“I believe over the next year there will be a real deep dive, bringing things to light to this Reedy Creek facility,” Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said, anticipating many committee meetings and negotiations between now and next year. “We have more than a year to undo this now.”
A lot of attention has been brought to Reedy Creek in the last 30 days, he said, about the same time Disney’s CEO came out against the “don’t say gay” bill.
“This is an organization that has many powers we do not believe they should have in 2022. They have eminent domain powers. They can build a nuclear facility,” Simpson said.
The Legislature had a chance to remove Disney’s ability to build a nuclear power plant in 2019, but the bill died in committee. Disney has shown no interest in building a nuclear plant, opting instead to invest in solar power.
An amendment filed Wednesday by Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, that would have done the same thing was rejected by the House.
Critics of the governor say the bills were meant to punish Disney, Florida’s largest single-site employer, for opposing him on “don’t say gay.”
“This is nothing short of bullying,” said Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. “Why are you putting the knee on the neck of the mouse?”
Grilled by Pizzo during debate on Tuesday night about whether she wrote the bill herself, Bradley said she had a copy handed to her by the Legislature’s professional bill drafters the Community Affairs Committee that she chairs. She said she didn’t know who gave the bill to Community Affairs.
Several Democratic lawmakers criticized the suddenness with which the Disney bills were “dumped” on them, and asked why there was a rush.
An amendment by Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, that failed would have required the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability to study the impact dissolving Reedy Creek and other special improvement districts targeted would have on state and local governments and the private sector.
Farmer estimated that Reedy Creek had about a $1.5 billion to $2 billion combined debt load and other obligations, which would translate to about a $2,400 tax bill for every family of four in Orange and Osceola counties.
Rep. Randy Fine, a Melbourne Beach Republican who moved to Florida in 2006 and has bragged about the amount of money he and his family have dropped visiting Disney World, made clear his intention of filing the bill was to punish Disney.
Fine started out saying his bill was about the need to have legislative oversight for all six special improvement districts but by the end of his hour and 15 minute presentation revealed his true intent: “You got me on one thing, this bill does target Walt Disney company. And you want to know why? It is the only company in state granted the right to govern themselves.”
“Disney betrayed us,” Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, said during a committee debate Tuesday. “The company that Walt Disney started, which was a beacon of family values, has now been perverted by a woke mob of liberal extremists into a laboratory of gender identity social experimentation, in which our children are guinea pigs.”
Democrats assailed their Republican colleagues for capitulating to DeSantis out of fear of facing primary opponents or having their projects vetoed from the budget rather than acting as the independently elected lawmakers they are supposed to be.
“I didn’t think we were going to acquiesce and let the governor hijack that process,” Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Black Democrat from Miami Gardens, said during the morning debate on the Senate version of the redistricting bill. “What we now see in the Senate we used to only see in the House. We used to be happy when bad bills came to the Senate because that’s where bad bills came to die.”
“If this is going to happen from now on, there is no need to show up,” Jones said.
Senators, who passed the district map by a 24-15 vote, conceded the issue was going to wind up in court.
Democrats were especially critical of an amendment added Tuesday that requires all lawsuits challenging the redistricting map to be filed in Leon Circuit Court, an attempt to sidestep the federal court in Tallahassee where most election cases have been challenged and found unconstitutional.
The map DeSantis introduced achieves his stated goal to eliminate the minority-majority District 5 that sprawls across North Florida from Jacksonville to Tallahassee and replaces it with a district that is only 12% Black. It also diminishes the Black voting population in District 10 in Orlando, moving a large number into the Republican-friendly District 11. The map reduces predominantly Black districts from four to two.
His map also achieves a goal to increase Republican-friendly congressional seats from 16 to 20, and reducing the number of Democratic-leaning seats to eight. The maps approved by the Legislature created an 18-10 split.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, said majority-minority districts may not be necessary, noting that several Black members of the Legislature got elected in districts that were not majority Black. “If they’re a good candidate they will get elected,” she said.
“I believe the maps are constitutional, and I wouldn’t vote for them otherwise,” Stargel said. “I don’t think anyone who votes for them are racists or following the will of the governor or voting for unconstitutional.”
She introduced an amendment to earmark $1 million for legal fees if the map is challenged. “The money is there because we know they are going to be challenged,” she said.