GOP Presidential Candidate Pushes Florida’s Biggest Business Over the Edge
Florida’s largest employer is under a political assult.The corporation said it was the victim of "a targeted and weaponized campaign of government retaliation," which it alleged occurred due to the company's criticism of a controversial state education bill.
Education legislation in Florida that prohibits young pupils from discussing their sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom was attacked by Disney last year after the company was put under pressure by its workers. Almost immediately, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis began referring to the firm as "Woke Disney" and vowed to demonstrate to it who the real boss was.
In an email soliciting financial support, Mr. DeSantis stated his opinion on the matter: "If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy."
Since then, Florida lawmakers have taken a number of antagonistic actions against Disney, the state's biggest taxpayer, at the insistence of Mr. DeSantis. They took away Disney's long-held right to self-govern its 25,000-acre resort as if it were a county in February. Disney has enjoyed this privilege for many years. Mr. DeSantis announced a week ago that new ride inspection requirements will be implemented at Disney.
Disney has secretly taken measures to safeguard itself, which has enraged the governor and the people who support him. On Wednesday, however, the corporation decided that enough was enough and took legal action against Mr. DeSantis and a five-member board controlling Disney World government services. The complaint was filed in federal court, claiming that Disney was the victim of "a targeted campaign of government retaliation."
In its complaint to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Disney stated that "in America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind." Disney had criticized the Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as "Don't Say Gay," which forbids students up to third grade from discussing their sexual orientation and gender identity in class. Recently, the DeSantis administration extended the prohibition to grades 12 and up.
According to the complaint, Mr. DeSantis has been engaged in a "relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint." The complaint continued, saying that the campaign "now threatens Disney's business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights."
The lawsuit, according to Mr. DeSantis' spokeswoman Taryn Fenske, is "yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law." We are not aware of any legal privileges that a company has to run its own government or to maintain exclusive rights not enjoyed by other businesses in the state, the spokesperson continued.
It is noteworthy that Walt Disney World and the state of Florida have developed a contentious relationship in a relatively brief period. The Walt Disney Company has a history of making significant political contributions. Since 1967, Florida's Republican leaders granted Disney the authority to self-govern property as a means of incentivizing the construction of a theme park. Subsequently, the company and Florida's governors have, for the most part, maintained a positive relationship. This can be attributed, to a significant extent, to the decision made by Florida's Republican officials to grant Disney the authority to exercise self-governance over its property. However, the tangible impact was manifested in the creation of employment opportunities and a significant economic upturn. Disney World holds the distinction of being the largest single-site employer in the United States, with an estimated 75,000 individuals occupying various positions within the organization. Additionally, it receives an estimated 50 million visitors on an annual basis, making a substantial contribution to Florida's crucial tourism sector.
According to the disclosures made by the company in 2022, Disney was responsible for and collected a total of $1.2 billion in state and local taxes. The company recently announced that it had set aside $17 billion for expansion spending at the resort over the course of the following decade. This growth would result in the creation of 13,000 additional jobs within the company.
Mr. DeSantis's disagreement with Disney has turned into a national spectacle, partly because he is a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination (although he has not officially declared a bid for the nomination). Because of his unyielding stance against Disney, he has received criticism from individuals who might run against him for the presidency. Former President Donald J. Trump wrote those words in a post that he published the previous week on his social media site, Truth Social. "This is all so unnecessary, a political STUNT," he said.
On behalf of Disney, a high-powered litigator based in Los Angeles named Daniel M. Petrocelli submitted the complaint to the court in Tallahassee. When Mr. Trump needed legal representation in 2016 concerning a class-action fraud case brought against the now-defunct Trump University, he contacted Mr. Petrocelli.
Judge Mark E. Walker, who serves as chief judge for the Northern District of Florida, was given responsibility for the Disney case. Judge Walker, who is well-known for issuing harsh rulings and was appointed to his position by President Barack Obama, has previous experience with cases involving the First Amendment. In December of the previous year, he granted a victory to professors at the University of Florida by declaring that they could not be prevented from providing expert testimony in lawsuits brought against the state.
"Disney regrets that it has come to this," the complaint stated. "For the better part of a year, the company worked toward finding a way to de-escalate the situation, making multiple attempts to start a fruitful conversation with the DeSantis administration. The company has done everything possible to find a solution, but their efforts have been fruitless, so they are out of options.
Minutes after Mr. DeSantis's appointment of a board to oversee Disney World, the board nullified two agreements that gave Disney vast control over the expansion of the resort complex. After the board's general counsel, Daniel Langley presented evidence of what he called "self-dealing" and "procedural unconscionability" on the part of Disney in pushing these agreements through earlier this year, the appointees declared the agreements null and void and voided them. Mr. Langley stated that Disney broke multiple laws in the state of Florida, one of which was the failure to provide adequate notification to the general public regarding the actions that were taken. Disney filed their complaint shortly after this occurred.
As part of one of the agreements, Disney will be granted permission to construct an additional 14,000 hotel rooms, in addition to a fifth theme park and three smaller parks. (Disney World already has 18 Disney-owned hotels, a shopping mall, a 220-acre sports complex, and four theme parks and two water parks.) The other one prohibits certain uses for the adjacent land, such as strip clubs.
The lawsuit Disney filed described the action the board took as "patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional." On multiple occasions, Disney has referred to the agreements as "appropriate" and stated that they were reached during public meetings advertised in The Orlando Sentinel.
The dispute between Mr. DeSantis and Disney focuses on a special tax district established in 1962 and encompasses Disney World. This district is now 56 years old. The district effectively transformed the property into its own county, providing Disney with unprecedented control over aspects such as fire protection, policing, waste management, energy generation, road maintenance, bond issuance, and development planning.
There are hundreds of special tax districts in Florida that are very similar. One of them focuses on The Villages, which is a massive retirement community located north of Orlando. The Daytona International Speedway and the surrounding area are both included in another.
In an effort to limit the amount of independence the Disney company enjoys, legislators decided in February to give the governor the authority to appoint an oversight board for the Disney district. However, when the appointees reported for duty, they learned that the previous board, which Disney had controlled, had approved the development agreement and restrictive covenants. This will limit the power of the new board for decades to come.
They were insensed, and Mr. DeSantis shared the same sentiment. In his reply, he proposed several possible punitive measures that could be implemented against Disney. The aforementioned measures encompassed reassessing the resort's valuation for property tax purposes, implementing tolls on thoroughfares that provide access to Disney World, and cultivating real estate in proximity to the resort's entry points. During a press conference held on April 17th, he proposed the following recommendations: "Perhaps the establishment of a state park or the development of additional amusement parks could be explored. It has even been suggested that the construction of another state prison may be necessary," he stated.
Furthermore, he has formally requested that the chief inspector general of Florida initiate an investigation into Disney's efforts to circumvent his jurisdiction within the state.
The actions of Mr. DeSantis and his associates have been described as an effort to establish a fair and equitable competitive environment for Disney, aligning it with other theme park operators in the state. This is the rationale that has been employed to justify their decisions. In contrast, Legoland, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens lack governing bodies that are under the direct control of the governor. As per the statements made by the governor, supplementary safety inspections for rides will solely take place at Disney World. Nevertheless, these modifications will not have an impact on the other prominent amusement parks in the state.
Mr. DeSantis has been characterized as "anti-business" and "anti-Florida" by Robert A. Iger, the CEO of Disney, due to his actions. In the event that the governor persists in utilizing Disney as a political target, Mr. Iger has unequivocally conveyed that forthcoming investments in Disney World may be jeopardized.