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Disney’s special Florida district says the state can’t dissolve it without paying off massive debts, vows to continue operations

April 28, 2022, 7:07 PM UTC

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took substantial legal action to punish Disney for stepping into the state’s political arena by moving to dissolve Reedy Creek, a special district that’s given the company enormous self-governing powers for over half a century. But rather than put the dispute to bed, his decision opened up a Pandora’s box of new problems for the state.

The day before DeSantis signed the bill into law, Reedy Creek looked back to its original contract and pointed to language that implies the state might not be able to destroy it so easily.

Florida established the Reedy Creek Improvement District in 1967 with the passage of the Reedy Creek Act. The district said in a statement posted to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board that in that original act, Florida pledged not to interfere with Reedy Creek’s operations or its ability to “fulfill the terms of any agreement made with the holders of any bonds or other obligations of the district” until all its bonded debt, including interest, has been paid. 

With nearly $1 billion in bonded debt, Reedy Creek plans to move forward with business as usual in the face of the law’s effective date of June 1, 2023.

“In light of the state of Florida’s pledge to the district’s bondholders, Reedy Creek expects to explore its options while continuing its present operations,” it said in the statement. The district said it will continue to collect its taxes on Disney and make payments on its debt.

Reedy Creek’s taxes on Disney make up its primary source of revenue, which it uses for its own maintenance and services, like road repair and its fire department. Thanks to its special district status, it can also issue bonds to fund large infrastructure projects and as a result take on massive debt.

The law dissolving Reedy Creek does not include language to answer what will happen with that debt. It also doesn’t outline how Orange and Osceola counties, which Reedy Creek straddles, will take on the land’s maintenance once the district no longer exists to do so. Reedy Creek currently operates on an annual budget of over $150 million.

Several paths forward are possible, ranging from the two counties absorbing all of Reedy Creek’s debts and responsibilities—to the detriment of residents who could be hit by an increase in property taxes—to the creation of a very similar special district with nominally limited powers. 

In a statement accompanying the law’s passage, DeSantis’s office said its intent was not to cause tax increases for any Florida residents. “In the near future, we will propose additional legislation to authorize additional special districts in a manner that ensures transparency and an even playing field under the law.”

On Monday, DeSantis doubled down on his promise: “Under no circumstances will Disney be able to not pay its debts. We will make sure of that.”

Reedy Creek became the target of DeSantis’s ire after Disney spoke up about the state’s Parental Rights in Education law, also known popularly as “Don’t Say Gay.” The law prohibits classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in Florida primary schools. 

Disney initially opted not to publicly comment on the bill, but eventually capitulated to workers and consumers who protested the company’s silence. CEO Bob Chapek publicly criticized the law as it was going through the state legislature, first in a shareholder meeting and then in a letter to employees. 

In response, DeSantis derided Disney’s perceived “woke” behavior and called for a special session of the state’s legislature to consider the bill he ultimately passed to eliminate certain special districts. 

Disney has not yet made any public comment regarding the law’s passage.

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