DeSantis reverses the $1.2 billion tax hike he imposed during last year’s Disney fight

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reversed a looming threat on Monday $1.2 billion tax hike against residents of central Florida, which he inadvertently imposed a year ago in a hastily passed law intended to punish Walt Disney Co. for criticizing its so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.

“The corporate kingdom is over,” said the Republican at the lectern of a Disney fire station.

Monday’s law rescinds the proposed resolution of a special tax district for Disney’s 25,000-owned acres south of Orlando, which lawmakers passed and which DeSantis signed into law over a three-day period last April.

A month earlier, then-Disney CEO Bob Chepak told the company’s employees that he regretted not speaking out against the Parental Rights in Education Act and said he would suspend political donations in Florida.

Nicknamed “don’t say gay,” this law prohibits first-grade teachers from talking about sexuality or gender. Critics argue it prevents teachers in same-sex marriages, for example, from mentioning their spouses.

DeSantis and his allies said Disney should not be given any special privileges. But an unintended consequence of last April’s law was the transfer of Disney’s outstanding debt to the 700,000 homeowners and businesses in Orange and Osceola counties.

Had that law gone into effect June 1 as planned, their tax bills would have increased by thousands of dollars a year through 2038, when bonds issued by the Reedy Creek Improvement District to pay for roads and other public works on Disney properties were finally paid out of.

Such a tax increase would have been a political disaster for DeSantis, which is expected to announce its presidential candidacy later this spring. The urgency of resolving the matter was reflected in his decision to include it in a special legislative session this month, rather than waiting for the regular session to begin in early March. Florida governors have historically had far more scrutiny over legislation during a special session than during the regular 60-day session, when bills are often overloaded with foreign language and involved in horse-trading.

The bill, which DeSantis signed into law Monday, repeals last April’s Disney statute and gives him and future governors the task of appointing the board for Disney’s tax district, renamed the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. Otherwise, the district’s ability to issue bonds to pay for improvements to Disney properties remains unaffected.

DeSantis said he plans to formally appoint a new five-member board of directors later Monday. While these individuals were previously handpicked by Disney, they will now be allies of DeSantis — including Bridget Ziegler, wife of the state Republican Party leader.

During Monday’s 45-minute bill signing, DeSantis repeatedly used misstatements and outright untruths to describe both Disney’s past and new tax and regulatory frameworks.

For example, DeSantis claimed that Disney would finally be forced to pay its “fair share,” which it has avoided in the past. “They had infrastructure running into the theme park that was paid for by all central Florida citizens, and Disney really got a free ride. Now they can be taxed for it,” he said.

In fact, Disney real estate has one of the highest combined tax rates in the state. It pays all taxes due to counties and school boards for its acreage, and then pays additional “mills” for roads, water and sewage, utilities, and fire and police protection on its own property.

Elsewhere, DeSantis hinted that Disney’s spending on its own infrastructure has weighed on Florida taxpayers. “They have been able to receive huge amounts of benefits without paying their fair share in taxes and even racked up $700 million in municipal debt,” he said.

In reality, Disney’s bond debt is paid only by taxpayers within the confines of the Reedy Creek Improvement District — in other words, Disney itself, with the exception of a few small parcels that it has sold to hotels.

Former President Donald Trump is expected to face Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2024 presidential primary.

Former President Donald Trump is expected to face Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2024 presidential primary.

Former President Donald Trump is expected to face Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2024 presidential primary.

DeSantis said the new law puts Disney on an equal footing with all other Central Florida attractions: “Disney will be treated like SeaWorld is treated or like any of these other.”

That’s not true either. Under a renamed board, Disney still has its own tax district, which Universal Studios and SeaWorld, for example, don’t have. And because the county is a tax-exempt entity, a parking garage on Disney properties doesn’t have to collect sales tax while the other theme parks do.

DeSantis accused local governments of trying to take advantage of last year’s tax hike legislation. “It will prevent local governments dominated by left-wing politicians from using this situation to levy local taxes,” he said of the new law.

But passing Disney’s accumulated debt on to taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties was not optional for officials in those counties in the event of Reedy Creek’s dissolution. Rather, it is prescribed by state law of the special districts.

The DeSantis press office did not respond to inquiries from HuffPost. As was customary during his tenure, DeSantis did not publicly announce the signing of the bill until two hours before Monday morning — making it impossible for journalists from Tallahassee’s Capital Press Corps, who have followed the Disney legislation most closely, to to participate in it.

Instead, DeSantis invited a fire department union leader who complained that Disney wasn’t paying them enough; a local mother who has given up on Disney because she believes it no longer offers healthy entertainment; and a Disney World employee who used his microphone time to spread various untruths about the COVID vaccines.

DeSantis is widely expected to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in Florida in 2024, challenging coup-trying former President Donald Trump.

His critics are already slamming him for aping Trump’s personality traits to win over his constituents. DeSantis provided them with a little more fodder Monday by holding up the bill to show his signature to the audience and cameras — just like Trump did with his bill signatures. DeSantis reverses the $1.2 billion tax hike he imposed during last year’s Disney fight

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