On April 22, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill dissolving the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Put that way, it sounds rather routine, but it isn’t. DeSantis called a special session of the legislature just to get this done. The only thing routine about it is that it’s an example of Rule Number One in Florida politics since 2018: Don’t publicly disagree with Ron DeSantis, or he’ll throw a tantrum and try to punish you.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District is, as you’ve probably heard by now, 38.5 square miles of land in Orange and Osceola Counties owned by the Walt Disney Company. In 1967, the man himself decided to build an amusement park in the area, but he wanted — and got — something in return: Self-governance.
Disney ran Reedy Creek as, essentially, its own polity. It taxed itself to build roads and provide services normally provided by government elsewhere. And it largely got to do things its way instead of Tallahassee’s way.
As a result, the Orlando area became a global tourist mecca. Disney did well, of course, but so did the area’s other businesses and the two counties’ residents. Among other things, the population of the Orlando metro area grew from about 275,000 to more than two million over the 55 years of the district’s existence.
Then Disney said something Ron DeSantis didn’t like. Specifically, it condemned the state’s recently passed “parental rights” law, better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. And for that, DeSantis decided, Disney had to pay.
The move was also presumably politically calculating. Positioning himself as opposed to “woke” Disney couldn’t possibly hurt him with Florida’s Trump-addled Republican base, and Orange and Osceola counties voted for his Democratic opponent by huge margins in 2018 anyway. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer is: A lot.
From here on out, instead of taxing itself liberally to provide excellent public services, Disney will just fork over taxes to the counties’ governments. Disney may actually end up paying more, but local residents are likely to get less for the money. After all, those governments aren’t used to doing the things that Disney’s been doing (and doing pretty well) for 55 years.
And Disney’s self-taxation subsidized lower property taxes for the counties’ residents, whose property taxes will likely go up by 20-25%.
Then there are the district’s bond obligations. With the passage of DeSantis’s revenge bill, those obligations — about $1 billion — are no longer Disney’s. They’re now owed by the county governments. The counties’ taxpayers will take it in the shorts yet again.
In 2018, DeSantis received 218,856 votes in Orange and Osceola Counties … and won the statewide gubernatorial election by only 32,463 votes.
Holding everything else constant, only 16,232 — 7.4% — of his 2018 voters in those two counties would have to change their minds in 2022 to send Ron DeSantis packing.
When the voters in the two counties see their new tax bills, revised upward courtesy of DeSantis’s tantrum, they’re going to be mad. And they’re going to know who to be mad AT.
Messing with Mickey may have just ended DeSantis’s political career.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.