The Florida House on Thursday approved a proposal that would shift control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District away from the Walt Disney Co., setting up a final vote Friday in the Senate.
The Republican-dominated House voted 82-31 to approve the bill (HB 9B), which would give authority to Gov. Ron DeSantis to appoint the district’s five-member Board of Supervisors and would change the name to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. The vote came on the fourth day of a special legislative session.
The state created the Reedy Creek district in 1967 and essentially gave Disney control over issues such as land use, fire protection and sewer services that are typically handled by local governments.
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Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, pointed to longstanding concerns about Disney having a competitive advantage because of the special district.
“We’re just saying they’re going to be governed by people who don’t work for them, just like every other company, just like every other individual in the state of Florida,” Fine said.
But Rep. Rita Harris, D-Orlando, said the bill sends a “chilling” message to businesses, with constituents in her Central Florida community “concerned that the governor will have sole power to appoint board members.”
“They are concerned that they will put people in place, who do not know the theme-park industry or their needs and potentially threaten their livelihoods,” Harris said. “They are worried about their future. They’re worried a future governor will also take action or more aggressive action against corporations and other institutions if they have an opinion that does not align with him or her.”
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At DeSantis’ urging, lawmakers last year voted to dissolve Reedy Creek and five other special districts across the state, after Disney angered him by opposing a controversial education law. The dissolutions, however, would take effect June 1, 2023, which left time for lawmakers to re-establish and revamp the districts.
Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis, D-Ocoee, called Thursday’s bill “retribution and punishment” for angering DeSantis. Disney opposed a law that restricts instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation in schools.
“As an African American woman, it is personal to me because (the proposed Reedy Creek change) is deeply rooted in an attack on marginalized people,” Bracy Davis said. “And when you attack and punish one marginalized group, you attack and punish all marginalized groups.”
The revamped district would continue to have wide-ranging authority, including the ability to levy property taxes and fees, issue bonds and provide services such as water and sewer systems, roads and parking facilities.
Board members appointed by DeSantis would be subject to Senate confirmation. Appointees could not be employees, owners or operators of theme parks.
Democrats unsuccessfully sought a change Thursday about the makeup of the district Board of Supervisors. Under the change, the board would have been made up of four officials from Orange County and Orlando and three others appointed by the state Cabinet.
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“I will admit with full grace that the current structure of the Reedy Creek board is problematic,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who proposed the amendment. “We have to ensure that local voices have a say, that our firefighter unions, for example, can actually lobby and have influence over the board.”
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said Wednesday she expected the Senate to complete the special session on Friday, including voting on the Reedy Creek bill.
“That’s our plan,” Passidomo told reporters.
The Senate Rules Committee is expected to take up the bill Friday morning before the proposal goes before the full Senate in the afternoon.
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