Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis just declared an all-out war on The Walt Disney Company over their opposition to HB1557, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Most of his fellow Republican Party of Florida colleagues in the legislature have followed suit.
America’s third-largest state only has a single 60-day legislative calendar each year. All other business for 20 million people depends on the Governor to call a special session of the state House and Senate for all other business, which DeSantis is using to enact a racist redirecting map.
But the Florida 2024 Republican nominee is using the upcoming special session to attack Walt Disney World’s governance structure, a key element in their long-term real estate management plan.
The Governor is adding “consideration” to Disney’s special district status for Disney World, which combines with their company town Lake Buena Vista, Fl. and Bay Lake, Fl. under the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
The GOP war on family entertainment and movie streaming company Disney happened after their new CEO made them a johnny-come-lately in their public opposition to DeSantis’ new homophobic law. By first bowing to public outrage at efforts from Florida Republicans to turn back the clock to a time when anti-LGBTQ discrimination was more prominent and blatant, they threw chum in the waters, and like any shark raised in a theme park tank, if it’s hungry, it won’t hesitate to bite the hands that feed it.
It’s fascinating to watch this feud play out because Disney and the Florida Republican Party have long had a pretty cozy relationship. Florida Republicans have benefitted from Disney’s political contributions.
One of the most vocal and awful supporters of the Don’t Say Gay bill in the Florida House of Representatives, Randy Fine, raised $20,000 from Disney, money he now claims is part of a “woke” and “communist” agenda. In 2018, Rep. Fine amended a bill so Central Florida governments won’t be able to spend hotel tax money on new roads, bike paths, or other tourism-related infrastructure to help none other than Disney.
In another instance, Fine spoke about how important it is for him to protect Disney after filing a timeshare bill that would benefit the company. Today, he just posted triumphantly on Facebook about his dirty work against Disney with DeSantis:
BREAKING: Disney is a guest in the State of Florida. Today, we remind them of that fact. Governor DeSantis and I just announced that we are expanding the Special Session to hold Disney accountable.
U.S. Senator, former Florida Republican Governor, and serial Medicare fraudster Rick Scott was recently groveling, accusing Disney of being “woke-central” to not appear pro-Disney despite accepting $252,503 from Disney in 2015. Check out the Twitter backflip from Florida’s junior senator:
Leave it to a blog to twist the words I said on LIVE TV. Here’s the truth:
Teachers ought to focus on reading, writing, arithmetic. Companies ought to focus on serving their customers.
Disney used to be the happiest place on earth, now it’s just woke-central. https://t.co/7AyrYoLUcd
— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) April 6, 2022
Rick Scott isn’t afraid to raise taxes on the middle class and the poor, but this tweet pretty much proves he is afraid of Ron DeSantis right now.
Even alleged pedophile Matt Gaetz has joined the Disney World Pile up, calling on Disney tax loopholes to be closed. That would be great, but the spoiled rich kid in the heart of the Gaetz Gate scandal conveniently omits his own history of shilling for the company.
When he served as Chair of the tax committee in the Florida House of Representatives, not only did he allow corporate tax breaks, but he never championed combined reporting. He watered down a Tourism Development Tax bill for the benefit of Disney and added perks for bills pushed by the company.
It’s fascinating to watch these Republicans twist themselves into pretzels to oppose favors they themselves approved for Disney back when the company was still cutting them campaign checks. This includes DeSantis himself.
In 2021, the Florida Legislature approved a bill aimed to address right-wing hysteria regarding censorship by social media companies. The bill was ultimately blocked in court, but its Republican sponsors added a last-minute amendment to the legislation that exempted companies owning theme parks, a move the House sponsor acknowledged was designed so reviews left on Disney+ wouldn’t be affected.
The carveout for Disney was addressed by DeSantis during a press conference in West Palm Beach, in which he called it “ridiculous” and “embarrassing.”
“At the eleventh hour when the Legislature was doing this, Disney got them to put in a carveout for theme parks,” said Desantis, adding he considered vetoing the legislation because of the carveout.
That’s a straight-up lie. Not only did DeSantis not consider vetoing it, but his staff also worked with Disney to write the carveout.
Emails obtained by Seeking Rents reporter Jason Garcia show how DeSantis’ legislative affairs director, Stephanie Kopelousos, communicated with Disney to propose bill language directly written by the company. Emails exchanged include subject lines like “Latest from disney”[sic] and “New Disney language” and contain within them clauses that could be added to the bill to exempt the company.
It wasn’t just Kopelousos that was responsive to Disney’s requests. DeSantis’ budget and policy chief, Chris Spencer, was also involved and James Uthmeier, who served as general counsel at the time and has since been promoted to chief of staff, also offered suggestions.
When amending a law that could have impacted them, Disney was simply cashing in on their investment. Ron DeSantis has received at least $100,000 in campaign contributions from Disney, and hundreds of thousands of dollars more have gone to the Republican Party of Florida.
In 2019, Ron DeSantis signed a law responsible for hundreds of millions of our tax dollars going to corporate giveaways. This May, $624 million in tax refunds will be given to a secret list of Florida’s wealthiest corporations, and half of the money will go to 100 giant companies. Because of its size, Disney will definitely be a recipient of that money and is projected to receive around $10 million. DeSantis is so unwilling to actually challenge Disney where it hurts, their pocketbook, that under questioning from reporters, he acknowledged that he is not willing to target the company’s lucrative tax breaks.
Disney has for a long time gotten their way in Florida. Orlando area State Representative Anna Eskamani, who does not take money from Disney, has put together a comprehensive list of all the political favors that Disney has received since 1997. Florida Republicans were happy to give the company whatever they wanted if their campaign coffers were full in exchange.
The Walt Disney Company has long used its wealth to muscle its priorities through the Florida Legislature with a swingle party even though the voters are often 50/50 in statewide races. Through the process, they have created a Republican Party of Florida monster that has now turned on them.
What’s particularly embarrassing to watch is how Ron DeSantis and his Republican colleagues lie outright about their previous cozy relationship with Disney while continuing to give millions of our tax dollars in corporate giveaways to the company.
It’s usually all performative rhetoric meant to distract from their actual pro-corporate, anti-worker agenda.
In the wake of Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott halting US-Mexico trade with bogus state inspections for political reasons, causing widespread food price increases and a quarter billion dollars in damage to small businesses across the country, Disney should take GOP threats as less rhetorical and more of a promise.
Thomas Kennedy is an elected Democratic National Committee member representing Florida. He tweets from @tomaskenn.
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is a reported opinion columnist and roving correspondent. He's an elected member of the Democratic National Committee from Florida and a Director of Sunshine Agenda Inc. a government transparency nonprofit organization.