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Disney Says Florida Can’t Dissolve Theme Park Special Tax Status

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The dispute between Ron DeSantis and Florida’s largest private employer now centers on whether the state can legally dissolve the special taxing district that governs Walt Disney World, as the governor and local lawmakers did last week.

The standoff began after DeSantis signed a controversial bill last month that would bar schools from instructing children in kindergarten through third grade on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Disney CEO Bob Chapek initially tried to steer clear of heated public debate over the move, derided by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. But with pressure mounting within the company to oppose the move, he finally came out publicly against the move at his company’s annual shareholder meeting in March.

The Republican governor responded by trying to tarnish Disney as “woke” and moved to end the special status that allows the resort to function effectively as its own municipal government on the 39-square-mile property he owns, called the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

Making its only public statement since the Republican governor and lawmakers turned their wrath on Disney, the company this week expressed confidence to investors that the state could not legally nullify its 55-year deal while the district’s bond debt Reedy Creek was not paid. As a result, the offer to dissolve the special taxing district in Orange and Osceola counties would break an agreement made by Florida when it created the district in 1967, the company said.

Posted on the Municipal Securities Regulatory Board’s website on April 21, Disney stated, “In light of the State of Florida’s promise to the district’s bondholders, Reedy Creek looks forward to exploring its options as it continues its current operations, including collecting and collecting its ad valorem tax bonds and utility revenue bonds, honoring its bond covenants, and operating and maintaining its properties.”

Florida is contractually obligated not to become involved with the district until the bond debt is paid off, Jacob Schumer, a city attorney with the law firm Shepard, Smith, Kohlmyer & Hand in Maitland, Florida, told CBS MoneyWatch.

“The task of dissolving a special district and dividing its responsibilities between two counties is tremendous,” he said.

Disney World’s special tax status may not be in jeopardy, says reporter

Disney did not respond to a request for comment. He employs about 80,000 people at the complex, which includes multiple theme parks, hotels and his own fleet of buses. The political uproar is likely to continue, with DeSantis indicating he is ready to press the fight with Disney.

“The Governor’s team is working on the administration of this legislation that is designed to level the playing field for businesses in Florida. When we have more to share on our way forward, we’ll be happy to send it out. As the Governor has consistently stated, Floridians will not have to bear Disney’s burdens,” a spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch in an email.

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