TALLAHASSEE - Bowing to Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Legislature on Tuesday advanced two proposals aimed at punishing Walt Disney Co. for criticizing a controversial new law restricting instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools --- a measure critics have dubbed the "don’t say gay" bill.
DeSantis added the bills to a special session on congressional redistricting that kicked off Tuesday.
Lawmakers quickly scheduled the bills for hearings Tuesday afternoon, and committees in the House and Senate signed off on the measures and teed them up for final votes this week.
The Republican-dominated Legislature’s willingness to take on Disney --- a global attraction that is a colossal tourism draw for the state and is one of Florida’s largest employers --- sent ripples through the lobbying and business communities in Tallahassee and sparked the ire of Democrats.
But state GOP leaders’ backing of DeSantis, who is running for re-election this year and is widely viewed as a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, illustrates the iron-clad grasp on power the governor wields and his unflinching determination to flex his political muscle when crossed.
"To govern by revenge, to govern for punishment is not governing. It’s authoritarianism. It’s fascism," Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said during a meeting Tuesday of the Senate Community Affairs Committee.
The governor’s grip on the Legislature is evident throughout the Disney-related and redistricting bills under consideration this week.
DeSantis ordered lawmakers to return to the Capitol for a special session after vetoing a congressional redistricting plan passed by the Legislature in March.
DeSantis contended the Legislature’s plan violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, in part because of a sprawling North Florida congressional district that has elected a Black Democrat.
In an unusual move, legislative leaders have not crafted their own maps but are taking up a proposal offered by the governor’s office.
One of the measures targeting Disney would do away with a special governing district established in the 1960s for what became one of the world’s iconic theme parks.
The other proposal would eliminate an exemption for theme parks in a 2021 law crafted to punish social-media companies that strip users from platforms or flag users’ posts. A federal judge last year issued a preliminary injunction blocking the law from being enforced, saying it was "riddled with imprecision and ambiguity."
An Atlanta-based appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case this month.
Disney’s Central Florida attractions draw an annual average of more than 58 million visitors and employ 77,000 workers, according to the Disney World website.
The bullseye on Disney stems from the controversial education measure that DeSantis signed last month to restrict instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation. Disney issued a statement saying the legislation "should never have passed."
Speaking to reporters, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, defended the bills that emerged Tuesday. Republicans have disputed the "don’t say gay" label that critics slapped on the bill.
"I think what’s most troubling about Disney isn’t so much that they have disagreement with what we’ve done on policy. Lots of people disagree with what we’ve done on policy. They use their platform to perpetuate what we believe to be a lie, which is that, you know, the bill did one thing that it really didn’t do at all. And I think using its corporate power to do that, using the benefits that the taxpayers have given them for so many years to do that, is wildly inappropriate. So I think the governor’s anger was well-placed, and we’re happy to take it up," Sprowls said.
The potential dissolution of the Reedy Creek Improvement District could have far-reaching impacts. The district, created in 1967, covers roughly 25,000 acres in Orange and Osceola counties and oversees issues such as land use and traditional functions of local government such as fire protection and water and wastewater service.
The proposal could lead to the elimination in June 2023 of the Reedy Creek Improvement District and five other special districts across the state: the Bradford County Development Authority, the Sunshine Water Control District in Broward County, the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District in Franklin County, the Hamilton County Development Authority and the Marion County Law Library.
House sponsor Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, said the proposal is designed to address all six special districts, which would be able to ask the Legislature next year to be re-established. But he acknowledged that the controversy about Disney’s stance on the gender-identity and sexual-orientation law helped spur the Legislature to look at the special districts.
"When you poke the bear or you kick the bees’ nest, sometimes issues come out," Fine told the House State Affairs Committee.
Democrats on the committee argued that the proposal was retaliation for Disney’s opposition to the education measure.
Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, called the bill "un-American."
"Punishing a company for daring to speak against a governor’s radical-right political agenda is precisely the kind of thing we see in countries like Russia and China," Joseph said.
But Fine said the bill (HB 3C) was his — not DeSantis’ bill.
"We (Republicans) are not automatons, and we do not take orders," Fine said.
The House committee voted 14-7 along party lines to approve the bill.
Senate Community Affairs Chairwoman Jennifer Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican sponsoring the proposal in the Senate, told her panel that she did not write the measure (SB 4-C) and that it was provided to her by staff.
"Let’s have the Legislature take a good look at the scope of powers that the (Reedy Creek) district maintains and make the determination, is that scope and authority still appropriate. Does it serve a public purpose? That’s our job as legislators and I think a year is plenty of time for us to do that job," Bradley said.
But Democrats argued that the bill doesn’t guarantee that the Reedy Creek district will be re-established before June 2023.
"Whether we’re going to undo this June of 2023 termination is all going to depend on whether Disney finds itself back in the good graces of the governor," Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said. "It’s just not the way we’re supposed to govern. It’s not. This is autocratic. It’s bullying."
The Senate committee approved the bill in a 6-3 party-line vote.
If the Reedy Creek district is dissolved, Fine said its debt obligations, revenues and responsibilities would go to Orange and Osceola counties and the small cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista.
But critics questioned how the bill would affect people such as construction workers who build projects in the district. Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, said the bill would result in "collateral damage."
"There are real people impacted by this," Templin said. "A lot of real people."