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‘Buckle up’: DeSantis escalates Disney dispute, eyes hotel taxes and road tolls

FILE - People visit the Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., April 18, 2022. The first meeting of the new board of Walt Disney World’s government — overhauled by sweeping legislation signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis as an apparent punishment for Disney publicly challenging Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill — dealt with the rote affairs any other municipal government handles. Board members on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, faced calls for better firefighter equipment, lessons on public records requests and bond ratings. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, File)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday promised a new round of action against Disney in his ongoing dispute with the entertainment giant, including looking at the taxes on Disney’s hotels and imposing tolls on roads that serve its theme parks.

The DeSantis administration is also examining if a recent agreement approved between a Central Florida board that had been controlled by Disney and the company runs afoul of the state’s growth laws, according to senior administration officials. One of those laws explicitly states that development agreements must be modified or revoked to comply with laws even if the law is passed after the agreement was executed.

“They are not superior to the people of Florida,” DeSantis said during an evening appearance at Hillsdale College, the conservative liberal arts college in Michigan. “So come hell or high water we’re going to make sure that policy of Florida carries the day. And so they can keep trying to do things. But ultimately we’re going to win on every single issue involving Disney I can tell you that.”

Disney “tried to pull a fast one on the way out the door,” DeSantis said earlier in the day during a breakfast hosted by the Midland County Republican Party of Michigan. “That story’s not over yet. Buckle up. There’s more coming down the pike,” he added.

The rapid escalation between Disney and DeSantis this week comes in the aftermath of a Central Florida governing board that had been controlled by Disney passing a series of agreements that ensured Disney would keep a large degree of power despite a new law passed in February that created a new board controlled by the governor.

The moves stunned the DeSantis administration and the governor’s hand-picked board, which has since hired lawyers to examine whether it should challenge the legality of the agreements

On Monday, the governor called on his chief inspector general to do a “thorough review and investigation” into actions he said “undercut Florida’s legislative process, and defy the will of Floridians.”

But his remarks on Thursday evening outlined that more immediate actions are pending. DeSantis also said that the new district he appointed would explore developing property it owns that is adjacent to Disney property. He also contended that the Florida Legislature was prepared to void the development agreement that had been approved by the outgoing board.

Disney representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But the company released a statement last week to media outlets stating that “all agreements signed between Disney and the District were appropriate, and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida Government in the Sunshine law.”

During a shareholders meeting earlier this week, Disney CEO Bob Iger called Florida’s actions retaliatory as well as “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.”

The discord between Disney and DeSantis began last year when the company opposed the state’s “parental rights in education bill,” which has been called the “don’t say gay” bill by its critics. DeSantis took action after company executives sharply criticized the bill and said they would work to repeal it.

Florida lawmakers, at the request of the governor, earlier this year passed legislation to overhaul leadership of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the entity that has allowed the company the ability to operate its own government-like functions for more than 50 years on thousands of acres near Orlando.

That legislation came nearly a year after lawmakers pushed through a measure to dismantle Reedy Creek during a special session.

The probe by DeSantis’ chief inspector general comes while the Florida Legislature is midway through its annual legislative session. House Speaker Paul Renner has also contended that “all options are on the table” when it comes to Disney.


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