So much of today’s politics would be inexplicable to a time traveler from 20 or even 10 years ago. Imagine trying to explain to such a person that the state of Florida has decided to go to war with one of its major employers, The Walt Disney Co.
It started when the Florida Legislature began debating a bill that supporters say is a parental rights bill and that opponents have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. What the bill really is and its merits or lack thereof are not really the issue here. The fight over the reaction to it is.
Some Disney World employees were dismayed that their employer, which has long been a corporate player in Florida state politics and has donated to candidates of both major parties, didn’t immediately come out against the bill.
Eventually, the company did release a statement, saying the bill should not have been passed and it would work to repeal it.
Businesses do this all of the time. One can lament the amount of corporate influence in politics, but that is how the game is now played. And it’s not as if Disney doesn’t have a potential interest. Most boycotts aimed at states fail miserably. (See the attempted boycotts of Georgia over its election laws, which accomplished little more than costing the state an All-Star baseball game.) But as one of Florida’s major tourist destinations, Disney doesn’t need activists trying to boycott the state.
So far, this is the sort of story that plays out all the time in all 50 states. But then some in the Florida Legislature decided to punish Disney for daring to disagree. With little thought and little debate, the Legislature passed a bill abolishing Disney’s special district.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District may seem like special treatment, but it’s not. There are more than 1,800 such districts in Florida. Disney acts as its own local government, in charge of things like streets and sewer. Disney sought the authority when the company began developing Disney World to make sure it could do so with as little interference — from government and other developers — as possible. But in exchange, it took over responsibility for lots of things normally overseen by local governments. It was a win-win for the state, Disney and surrounding communities.
In their haste to punish Disney, the Legislature and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis put local governments on the hook for millions in taxes, infrastructure costs and bond debt.
Scott Randolph, Orange County, Florida’s tax collector, told The Miami Herald that the median county household would see an increase of $200-$250 a year in taxes just to pay off the district’s bond debt.
But that bond debt may scuttle the whole thing, as Florida law says no special district with outstanding bond debt may be dissolved. Randolph expects a lot of litigation in the future.
Still, this is all secondary to the free speech issue. Disney is being punished for speech that Florida Republicans don’t like. It’s as simple as that, and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez admitted as much when she went on television and said Disney could make this all go away by changing its position.
Corporations and businesses have free speech rights. Newspapers, magazines, websites and TV channels are businesses. They are all protected by the First Amendment.
Republicans used to understand this. They rightly cried foul when local governments run by Democrats tried to deny Chick-fil-A various concession opportunities on the basis of the company owner’s political donations. The Disney situation is no different.