Lawyers for the Walt Disney Company have filed two legal memorandums opposing motions to dismiss the lawsuit filed against the Florida governor. Ron DeSantis (R) and the governor-appointed members of the board that oversees the special tax district for Disney properties strongly condemned DeSantis’ “ridiculous” defense of his plan to punish the entertainment company for criticism of the legislation he signed.
The two motions to dismiss Disney’s second amended complaint were filed by DeSantis and Meredith Ivey as Acting Secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity; and by the members of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD), the renamed board, all of whom were appointed by the Governor.
Disney has responded extensively to each of the requests, detailing admissions from DeSantis’ own book and public statements about how he wanted to target the company after it opposed the Parental Rights in Education Act (called “Don’t Say Many of his critics criticized the law after it was passed.
At DeSantis’ urging, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature advanced an ill-conceived bill that would have completely repealed the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), the special tax district for Disney properties that stretches across Orange and Osceola County.
The Florida Constitution requires local governments to tax all taxpayers at the same millage rate unless a taxpayer or taxpayers consent to the creation of one of several types of special districts authorized by Florida statutes to levy an additional tax are authorized for a specific purpose. There are currently over 1,800 special tax districts in Florida, such as Disney’s, as well as numerous other “community development districts”, the legal entity for special tax districts exclusively within a municipality, etc.
As I have pointed out repeatedly over the past year that this charade has dragged on, RCID is this not a tax break for Disney, but an additional tax In addition to the taxes it pays to both counties, the company willingly pays an annual tax of approximately $160 million to maintain a higher level of services, infrastructure, etc. than the counties could provide then or now.
RCID was viewed by the Orange and Osceola governments as essential to the proper management of the Disney property, both at the time of its creation in 1967 and today, and was not a structure that either county wanted to dismantle. The Florida Legislature’s own analysis in 2004 reached a similar conclusion.
There are some difficult legal issues in Florida statutes regarding the prohibition on the removal of special tax districts without the consent of the landowners (the Disney absolutely not here) as well as a lot of questions about the First Amendment, numerous legal experts and the returning Disney CEO Bob Iger have pointed this out. Even if repeal of RCID were legal under Florida law (which it is not), the government cannot otherwise take legal action against a taxpayer in retaliation for the taxpayer’s exercise of the right to free speech.
It was neither common sense nor respect for constitutional rights that led DeSantis to withdraw his Cinderella Castle coup attempt, but rather the unyielding existence of RCID’s municipal bond debt – more than $1 billion – a debt that is the taxpayer’s fault of the county would become if RCID was disbanded. Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph estimated that this would increase taxes in his county by between $2,200 and $2,800 per household of four.
The attempt to save the governor’s face resulted in a new bill that kept RCID’s main structure intact, took control of the board away from Disney, and gave that appointment power to the governor.
This is a complete contradiction to the way special taxing districts have operated under Florida law for decades; since they are created with the consent of the landowners to pay additional taxes for a specific purpose, which landowner are those who vote on the appointment of county board members.
In fact, just earlier this month, Disney’s competitor Universal Studios received approval for a community development district that would fund its planned rail expansion between Orlando International Airport and Universal’s campuses – and its board members are all Universal employees. RCID operated in this manner for over fifty years, with the designated voting members being the Walt Disney Company itself and select property managers who were current or former Disney employees.
Not surprisingly, Disney argues in these filings that RCID has created “tremendous public benefits” not only for the company, but also for park guests and the people of Florida by transforming the area into a “thriving tourism hub,” But DeSantis’ actions have caused Disney “specific injuries” and “serious harm” that are “ongoing.”
These harms include threats to confiscate Disney’s land to build a prison or a competing theme park, the imposition of additional regulations on Disney’s monorail transportation system that do not apply to other parks, and the actual adoption of an unnecessary regulation (Disney has its Property always protected far beyond any government imposed regulations). Building Code), which imposed fines subject to enforcement (another way DeSantis’ puppet board could seize Disney’s land), the elimination of long-established benefits for firefighters at Disney, and the elimination of an $8 million annual budget for the Police protection on Disney property – yes, DeSantis’ hand-picked CFTOD board literally wants to deprive the police of resources.
These violations by Disney, the lawyers argued, “resulted from a plan that the governor says he intentionally orchestrated in secret so as to ensure no public participation or even knowledge of it in its development and implementation.” As at the time of After the original RCID repeal bill was passed, Republican lawmakers pushed it through with almost no debate, and the bill’s sponsors in both the Florida House and Senate admitted that they hadn’t bothered to hire anyone at Disney, RCID or to contact other Orange or Osceola County governments.
The First Amendment’s claims of retaliation are clear, Disney explains, pointing out that the laws targeting RCID were enacted “to punish Disney’s speech and to continue to exert control over its political commentary and programming,” with a bill that would “impair Disney’s voting rights.” in the regulatory governing body”. the use of its property and replaced the landowner-elected board with a governor-appointed “state receivership board” expressly charged with using its land-use powers to control Disney’s speech.”
The motions directly target DeSantis’ attempt to defend that Disney was not harmed because he simply took away an unwarranted “special privilege” that only Disney received, noting that those arguments were a “complete falsehood” and that what DeSantis did, a “complete untruth” was “unconstitutional restructuring” of RCID:
In repeated public comments, the governor stated that the laws would not harm Disney because they simply subject the company to the same regulatory structure that applies to all other companies in Florida, thereby creating a “level playing field.” This claim is a complete lie. In fact, just this month, a special district was created to govern the property that encompasses Universal’s new Epic Universe theme park in Orange County – whose first board is made up entirely of Universal employees. See Ariel Zilber, Universal Studios Gets Special Tax District After DeSantis Abolishes Disney, NY POST (October 13, 2023, 2:59 p.m.), Universal Studios Gets Special Tax District After DeSantis Abolishes -disney/. Additionally, most businesses and other property owners in Florida are subject to regulation by elected, politically accountable municipal corporations. Few Florida companies, like Disney, are currently governed by a special district with a governor-controlled board that strictly regulates the use of private property without being accountable to local property owners and taxpayers.
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