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Lawmakers in Florida move to end Disney's special self-governing status

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

It's been a bit of a rough week for The Walt Disney Company. CEO Bob Iger announced yesterday that the corporation is cutting 7,000 jobs in an attempt to slash more than 5 billion in costs.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah, and this comes just as Florida is expected to end an agreement that has given Disney World special control over its famous property near Orlando. A bill moving through the Republican-controlled legislature makes good on Governor Ron DeSantis' pledge to end Disney's unique status. Disney World has enjoyed self-governance in Florida for more than half a century.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from Miami. Greg, so what kind of autonomy does Disney World have in Florida?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, A, you know, since the 1960s, Disney's had what it's called its own independent special district that has powers like a municipal government. It's a body that issues bonds, builds and maintains roads, sewers and other infrastructure. It also operates the fire and police departments, all the things that Disney needs to run its big theme park complex near Orlando. The measure that's on track to be approved this week replaces that old district with this almost identical entity that now will answer to the governor instead of Disney. The main thing the new structure does is that the governor will now appoint all members to the board; Disney won't appoint board members. In fact, the bill says that no one can serve on the board who has any relationship with the company. And there's a name change, a few other minor adjustments. But it's all enough to allow Governor DeSantis, yesterday, to claim it as a win.

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RON DESANTIS: This is obviously now going to be controlled by the state of Florida, which is no longer self-governing for them. So there's a new sheriff in town, and that's just the way it's going to be.

MARTÍNEZ: It seems like he's getting a lot of glee over this. So why would the governor want a claim of a win over Disney?

ALLEN: You know, this all began last year as DeSantis ramped up his campaign against what he calls woke politics and ideology. He signed a bill that limits what teachers can say about sexual orientation or gender identity in schools. And after Disney took some heat from its own employees for not fighting to stop that measure, Disney's CEO belatedly said that he would work to undo the law. DeSantis then took that as an opportunity to call out the company for behavior that he considers woke. And, in short order, he got the legislature to pass a bill penalizing Disney, dissolving its independent special district.

MARTÍNEZ: How are Florida Democrats responding to all this?

ALLEN: Well, Democrats don't have a lot of power in Florida. They say some changes would be worthwhile, but they don't like what's happening here. At a hearing yesterday, Democratic House member Anna Eskamani accused the governor of suppressing freedom of speech.

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ANNA ESKAMANI: This is an attempt to silence critical independent speech and thought in Florida. And we've already seen a chilling effect of businesses across the state.

ALLEN: Eskamani offered an amendment to change the name of the new special district to, quote, "Florida's Attempt to Silence Critical and Independent Speech and Thought," with an acronym of FASCIST. That measure failed.

MARTÍNEZ: Is Disney going to fight back? What are they saying about this?

ALLEN: Well, the bill's sponsor said he was in regular touch with Disney as this bill was developed. The company hasn't said much, only says it's monitoring the progress of the bill and it will continue to operate in Florida. Eskamani says under the new plan, Disney continues to receive many of the tax breaks and other benefits that it's had for more than 50 years, though, but just with that one significant change - the company now has to answer to Governor DeSantis. Here's Eskamani again.

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ESKAMANI: I often see this as a low-security prison that the company is operating within, where they can pretty much do what they want to do. But if they go off course, they'll be punished.

ALLEN: You know, a key point in all this is the bill doesn't change the district's ability to issue bonds and service its debt, meaning the taxpayers won't be on the hook for its more than billion dollars in debt. Fitch Ratings has given it a thumbs up, saying the new structure addresses uncertainties that came up last year when lawmakers first voted to dissolve the old district.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Greg, thanks.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.