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Patrick Hedger and Dan Savickas Opinion: Ron DeSantis’ Disney Focus Betrays What Makes Florida Great

Conservative lawmakers have long professed the principles of the free market. An over-inflated government cannot possibly know or understand the vastly different realities of all its constituencies. Therefore, a light-touch approach that allows local stakeholders, businesses, and individuals to determine what’s best for them is most effective.

The state of Florida used to epitomize the wisdom of this vision and has been rewarded with nearly unrivaled growth as a result. Unfortunately, in a naked weaponization of government resembling that of which Republicans in Congress have accused the Biden administration, Gov. Ron DeSantis has abandoned the very same principles the made his state a magnet for businesses and families across the nation, particularly during his earlier administration.

DeSantis and his allies in the Legislature recently abolished the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID). The RCID was ushered in in 1967, creating a special governing board – which essentially functioned as a county government – to allow Disney a more streamlined environment to build infrastructure for its parks and resorts in the state.

There are legitimate concerns about RCID being the kind of special treatment government should avoid. That said, in practice it had many qualities free market advocates could admire. RCID turned the frequent challenge of progressives about who would build infrastructure under limited government on its head—a private company would have that ability without the usual red tape and waste of government projects. With some oversight, they would largely govern themselves. In the over 50 years since its inception, RCID flourished. The world-famous parks generated massive revenue streams for the state, allowing it to continue with zero state income taxes for residents.

Whether or not RCID was corporate welfare, laissez-faire, or something in between, the First Amendment bars governments from using such economic tools to silence dissent. Yet, DeSantis recently replaced the RCID with a new board run by five hand-picked members of his choosing. After public disputes with the governor over a host of political topics, it came as no coincidence that DeSantis’ panel of supervisors decided to repeal the special tax status that Disney – as well as state taxpayers – enjoyed for decades.

On top of the troubling constitutional issues, the economic ramifications of DeSantis’s actions are grave. Florida is a very business-friendly environment with no income tax. The state depends on tourism, gas taxes, and sales taxes to generate revenue. Given the millions who visit Disney World on a yearly basis, Florida relies on Disney’s constant investment in the state’s economy. DeSantis’ pursuit of retribution jeopardizes this harmony.

The recent moves also overturn existing property development agreements. On February 8, 2023, an agreement was made between Disney and Reedy Creek, giving the company the sole right to develop the district’s land for another 30 years. The deal was made publicly and carefully done so as to be in accordance with state law. Now, just a couple of short months later, DeSantis’ administration would wipe out that deal.

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This further imperils innovation and investment in the Floridian economy. After such actions, no business operating in Florida can be certain that their contracts will be honored. Publicly opposing the governor – or expressing ideals contrary to his – could be met by a weaponized state government, specifically targeting its interests. This is a dangerous precedent for both good governance generally and future economic activity in the state.

Meanwhile, Disney has planned to pour $17 billion in spending into its resorts over the next decade. This would create 13,000 jobs for Floridians by itself. In 2022 alone, the company paid $1.2 billion in taxes directly to state and local authorities. Disney’s success in the state is not just its own success, but the success of the rest of the state as well.

Meanwhile, the DeSantis administration has zeroed in on the company, advocating more measures that are transparently meant to punish Disney – and only Disney. DeSantis has asked the state legislature to implement stringent regulatory oversight over the theme parks’ rides and monorail system. However, the proposal would exempt other theme parks in the state. The governor has also suggested building prisons near the children’s theme parks – a move that might deter tourism and depress property values.

This blatant targeting has forced Disney to file a lawsuit against the state. This threatens to cost taxpayers millions in legal fees fighting one of the state’s greatest success stories. Instead, the Florida government should be trying to help Disney continue to boost the economic outlook for millions of Floridians – even those who don’t go to its parks.

This episode is particularly shocking and unfortunate because DeSantis used to understand the beauty of the free market and a hands-off government approach. In just the last few years, he became synonymous with allowing businesses to remain open and operational while other politicians imposed strict mandates and closures. It was on this hopeful message that he was overwhelmingly re-elected. Now, as he eyes higher office, he’s abandoned that to pursue patently unconstitutional retribution and a heavy-handed approach.

DeSantis’ previous record of success and de-regulation is a main reason why his state’s population has grown and businesses are increasingly relocating to the state. It is not worth throwing that away to go after a private company for expressing constitutionally-protected opinions while leaving Florida taxpayers in the crossfire.

Patrick Hedger is the executive director of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. Dan Savickas is the director of policy of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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