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Florida moves to scrap Disney World's special regulatory status in the state

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, when I was a kid, our family sometimes would drive all night from Indiana to Disney World in Florida. We loved Disney, and we learned all sorts of facts about it, like that Disney is its own little country, has its own government under Florida law. Now, after generations, the Florida Legislature has voted to revoke that status. And the bill now goes to Governor Ron DeSantis. This is a culture war punishment. The government is cracking down on Disney after the company criticized Florida legislation. Danielle Prieur of member station WMFE in Orlando has looked into Disney's special status now at risk.

DANIELLE PRIEUR, BYLINE: Basically, it has its own little mini government in an area known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. And that's about a 25,000-acre area that includes all the theme parks and water parks and hotels and restaurants that we all love going to. And it controls everything in that area from water and policing and road maintenance to, you know, paying taxes and issuing bonds. So it has really complete autonomy. And that's allowed the company to expand over the years.

INSKEEP: Why would it be that after more than half a century, the Florida legislature would decide this is the moment to get rid of that?

PRIEUR: Yeah. So basically, it goes back to a few weeks ago, if you remember the Parental Rights in Education or what opponents have called the Don't Say Gay law here in Florida, which will restrict some conversations around gender identity and sexual orientation in the younger grades. When that was kind of being debated, Disney CEO Bob Chapek strongly opposed it. And in response, our governor, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, basically introduced the idea, we need to dissolve this special district now. And then this week, during the special session here in Florida, we saw the Republican-led legislature really support him in that. And the bill to dissolve the district moved relatively easily through the Florida Senate and now through the Florida House. And so the measure is now on the governor's desk, and he is expected to approve it by May 6.

INSKEEP: But let's figure this out. So they're punishing Disney for an opinion. They dissolved this special governing status. But doesn't that special district bring in tax revenue to local authorities?

PRIEUR: It does. And so now the problem is there's this huge windfall and about a billion dollars in debt that most experts say Orange County and Osceola County residents are going to have to make up for in their taxes. Steve, I was speaking with the Orange County tax collector, Scott Randolph, yesterday. And he said homeowners here could see property taxes jump by 20% to make up the difference. And even then, it probably wouldn't be enough to cover all the money that would be lost. And he's really concerned that that means businesses won't want to come to this area after they see what happened to Disney. And Disney might not bring those 2,000 high-paying jobs from California over here to Florida.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to get my brain around this. Does this mean Disney's taxes go down because they're being punished? I mean, I'm baffled.

PRIEUR: Well, basically, you know, what will happen, - right? - is that they pay taxes right now on this district (laughter).

INSKEEP: OK.

PRIEUR: And so basically, the taxes now will be paid for by local residents, who already have some of the highest taxes in the country.

INSKEEP: Will visitors to Disney notice any change at all?

PRIEUR: They might because, obviously, Disney was in charge of ambulance services and fire services. So if, you know, someone has a heart attack or a car accident, now it's up to the county to figure out how to handle that and how to foot the bill. And also, Disney now will need approval before it expands on all of its wonderful theme parks, hotels, restaurants, new rides. There's a lot of red tape now involved.

INSKEEP: Danielle, thanks for the insights. Really appreciate it.

PRIEUR: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Danielle Prieur of member station WMFE in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.