Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs bill to void Disney development deals

Date:

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference in the cabinet room at the close of the 2023 Florida legislative session Friday, May 5, 2023.

Alicia Devine | Tallahassee Democrat via AP

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed legislation that effectively voids the development agreements Disney struck shortly before the governor chose a new board of supervisors to oversee the company’s Orlando parks.

The development deals are at the center of the latest battle in a yearlong war between Disney, one of Florida’s largest employers, and DeSantis, a Republican who is likely gearing up for a 2024 presidential campaign.

The governor’s office confirmed the bill signing in a press release that contained no other information or remarks on the legislation.

The bill, which passed out of the state’s Republican-majority Legislature just a day earlier, follows a vote by DeSantis’ board members to invalidate the deals, claiming they were struck unlawfully. Disney says the contracts were crafted to help lock in its long-term development plans amid escalating tension with DeSantis and his allies.

Members of both parties, including Trump, have criticized DeSantis’ fight with Disney.

“This feud between DeSantis and Disney is insane,” Linda Stewart, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 13th Senate district, told CNBC. “Every day it seems like there’s another way that they want to try to make things more difficult for Disney, but all they’re doing is costing taxpayers money to hire lawyers to go defend what they are doing.”

Stewart voted against the recent legislation.

Disney sued DeSantis and the board members last week, alleging a campaign of political retaliation led by the governor. The board countersued days later.

Disney declined to comment.

The feud began more than a year ago, after Disney denounced a Republican-backed Florida bill limiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender ideology, branded “Don’t Say Gay” by critics.

Shortly after, DeSantis and his allies moved to dissolve the special tax district that had allowed Walt Disney World to essentially govern its own operations since the 1960s.

The 25,000-acre area, formerly called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, was ultimately kept intact — but it was given a new name, and its five-member board was replaced with figures picked by DeSantis.

In March, the new board accused Disney of crafting 11th-hour deals that undercut its power. Disney says its contacts were forged publicly, and that they don’t undermine the board’s oversight of the district’s operations.

The company’s federal civil lawsuit asks the court to “stop the State of Florida from weaponizing the power of government to punish private business.”

DeSantis signed the bill voiding Disney’s deals on the final day of Florida’s 2023 legislative session. The governor, who was resoundingly reelected in the November midterms, is seen as former President Donald Trump’s top potential rival for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

The Legislature, which bears Republican supermajorities in both chambers, churned out bills that helped enact DeSantis’ wide-ranging conservative agenda — with a focus on divisive cultural issues that could resonate in a Republican primary race.

DeSantis has kept up his attacks on Disney, even as the drawn-out fight has led some Republicans to question his strategy.

In addition to voiding the development deals, the Florida Legislature passed a measure that would have the state transportation department conduct inspections of Walt Disney World’s monorails. Stewart said Disney hasn’t had any major safety issues with its monorail system since 2009, when an operator was killed after two of the vehicles collided. She called into question the timing of the new measure.

“It’s so obvious this is about retaliation,” Stewart said.

Earlier this month, the state education board approved an expansion of the classroom bill that kicked off the feud with Disney.

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