By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Orange County lawmakers Friday backed a longshot proposal that could essentially return to the Walt Disney Co. control of a special taxing district that was revamped after Gov. Ron DeSantis got into a feud with the entertainment giant.
In a voice vote, members of the Democrat-dominated Orange County legislative delegation supported a proposed House bill that seeks another redo of the former Reedy Creek Improvement District. The proposal would repeal a law passed last year that renamed the Reedy Creek district as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and gave DeSantis authority to appoint the district’s board.
Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said the new board hasn’t been transparent in its actions and that lawmakers need to go “back to square one” in revising how the district operates.
“This bill is to go back, repeal what is there and start over,” Stewart said. “Start over with a true discussion about what this organization could do that would be helpful. Not something that would tear it apart. And right now, they (the current board members) are looking at everything possible to tear it apart.”
But Rep. Doug Bankson, an Apopka Republican who opposed the proposal, called it a repeal effort rather than an intended fix.
“I’m not opposed to looking at something and finding better ways to do things where there’s holes,” Bankson said. “But to go backwards and repeal this, I think it’s the wrong move.”
Rep. Carolina Amesty, R-Windermere, complained that she had not been approached about the proposal, which directly involves her House district, and questioned if the bill will be heard in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“I don’t know how effective this policy, that’s coming before this county delegation, is actually going to be for the residents of Orange County,” Amesty said. “When we talk about policy, we can’t look at doing just political theater … we need to talk about actual policies that will make an impact and improve the lives of the residents that we represent.”
Under the Reedy Creek name, Disney largely controlled the district board. The state created the Reedy Creek district in the 1960s and gave it authority over issues such as land use, fire protection and sewer services on land that includes Disney parks and resorts.
Disney and DeSantis began feuding in 2022 after the company criticized a state law that restricts classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.
The Legislature in 2022, at DeSantis’ urging, voted to dissolve Reedy Creek and five other special districts across the state. But the dissolutions carried an effective date of June 1, 2023, and lawmakers in February 2023 stopped short of dissolution and decided to replace the Reedy Creek board.
Stewart’s proposal would end the terms of the current board members but wouldn’t affect contracts the board has entered.
Orange County Commissioner Nicole Wilson told the delegation the district has become a “pawn” in a larger battle that is impacting the lives of people throughout the region.
“Before the recent dismantling, if there was a pothole on Reedy Creek property, they just took care of their pothole,” Wilson said.
“Now, what happens essentially, when you dismantle something like that, is those functions of local government that we take care of for the rest of unincorporated Orange County are up in the air,” Wilson continued. “And so many of the talented people that I knew and so many of the divisions that did things like the public-works department are gone. They’re gone. And I don’t mean just gone from the area. They’re gone from the state.”
Disney, the state and the new district board have battled in state and federal lawsuits since last year’s changes. Disney alleges in a federal lawsuit that the state unconstitutionally retaliated over the company’s opposition to the 2022 education law.
Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, said “chaos” since the establishment of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board “has not been good for our constituents.”
A similar proposal by Stewart in late November stalled when the three Republicans — Bankson, Sen. Jason Brodeur of Sanford and Sen. Dennis Baxley of Eustis — walked out of a meeting before a vote could be held.
The three later contended they were upset that the delegation’s rules required its leaders to have at least 50 percent of their districts in Orange County.