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DeSantis’s Disney battle has created financial chaos in Florida. Here are 4 things that could happen next

April 26, 2022, 4:22 PM UTC

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis revoking special land use privileges that Disney has enjoyed in the state since 1967 is the latest escalation of a spat that began when the company came out against his so-called Don’t Say Gay law. Now the state’s taxpayers may pay the price.

For decades, Disney has ruled over 25,000 acres in the state with the powers of a municipal government, handling infrastructure projects with little oversight thanks to the land’s special designation as the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

The district is now set to dissolve next summer, leaving Florida, Disney, and the two counties Reedy Creek straddles—Orange and Osceola—to figure out how to manage its knotty finances that include almost $1 billion in bonded debt and the millions the district spends annually. 

According to the state senate’s bill analysis and fiscal impact statement, when a special district dissolves, the local government it sits on “shall also assume all indebtedness of the preexisting special district.”

Scott Randolph, Orange County’s tax collector, warned that the transfer could ultimately lead to officials having to hike property taxes in Orange County to offset the loss of revenue from Disney’s district, and to pay for maintenance and interest payments on the district’s debt. 

Justin Marlowe, a research professor at the University of Chicago’s school of public policy and assistant director of the school’s center for municipal finance, says that there are four main paths for Disney and Orange County moving forward. 

Orange County takes on Reedy Creek’s debts—and revenues

The first path—perhaps the most likely—is what Marlowe calls a potential “soft landing,” in which the state dissolves Reedy Creek, but then assists Orange County in taking on the infrastructure maintenance that the district previously administered.

In this scenario, the district’s debt would still move over to Orange County’s balance sheet, says Marlowe, but so would the revenues that have financed it for decades. 

“As long as those revenues continue to flow, Orange County would have adequate revenues to be able to not only make those debt service payments, but continue to make many of the kinds of investments that Reedy Creek now makes,” he says.

Those revenues consist of the taxes that Reedy Creek currently levies on Disney. Marlowe says that Florida could help Orange County replicate that arrangement, or even make it more efficient, by granting the county the power to impose the same taxes on the company.

Alternatively, Orange County could opt to create a new, dependent district with the sole purpose of assessing the debt back onto Disney.

Orange County is left to figure out finances alone

However, there’s also a world in which Reedy Creek’s debt transfers to Orange County without support from the state—what Marlowe calls a “hard landing.” 

To avoid increasing property taxes, the county would have to negotiate directly with Disney to create a favorable agreement that ensures the company continues to help finance Reedy Creek’s infrastructure.

“That wouldn’t necessarily be terrible,” says Marlowe, “except that Disney would have a lot of leverage over Orange County.” 

It’s only in the case of an unfavorable negotiation—if Disney did not agree to continue providing funds for infrastructure and public service maintenance—that Orange County taxpayers would suffer. 

“I don’t see that happening,” says Marlowe.

Disney takes the loss of Reedy Creek in stride

Given the length of Disney’s investment in the state and its existing flow of capital to Reedy Creek, it’s possible the company might decide to go above and beyond in helping Orange County navigate the end of the special district. 

“You could absolutely see a scenario where Disney, in a desire to perhaps to hit back at the state, cuts a very good deal with Orange County,” says Marlowe.

“Disney might be willing to contribute more than it’s currently contributing, and might really bend over backwards to try to be a good partner with their local government,” he says. “Just as a way to show the state that, in fact, Disney is a good citizen.”

Florida doubles down on punishment

There’s also the chance that DeSantis could impose a new special district with a similar structure as Reedy Creek, but specifically designed to force Disney to pay for more of the “improvements” in the district. 

That kind of setup could also prohibit Reedy Creek’s debt from transferring to Orange County, forcing Disney to take it on and pay for it so it doesn’t default.

“That would be an especially punitive thing for the state to do,” he says, considering the lengths that the state has already gone to in response to Disney’s involvement in the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. 

And continuing to attack the company could have adverse consequences that trickle down to its employees and the people who visit its attractions.

“It would start to look like it had less to do with the state trying to send a message and a lot more to do with trying to impose pain on Disney,” says Marlowe. “That, to me, would seem like a pretty bad idea politically. Of course, you never know.”

Ultimately, Marlowe doesn’t think that Florida residents have much to worry about. “It seems unlikely that taxpayers in Orange County will be saddled with some massive new debt burden that they won’t have some resources to help with,” he told Fortune.

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