A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a taxpayer lawsuit from Florida residents suing state and Republican governor Ron DeSantis over the decision to dissolve the Walt Disney SAR near Orlando.
A lawsuit filed last week in Miami’s US District Court alleges that the move to remove the area is unconstitutional, violates state legal and contractual obligations, and imposes a $1 billion debt burden on taxpayers.
The legal battle is part of the broader consequences of Florida and Disney’s fight over the parental rights law of an education law nicknamed “Don’t Say I’m Gay”, ridiculed by opponents.
DeSantis last month signed legislation repealing Disney’s special tax and self-governing status in Central Florida by repealing the Reedy Creek Improvement District, created by the State Legislature in 1967 to give Disney its own local government.
In a special legislative session, state legislators voted to repeal the area after Disney said it wanted to see a court repeal or block a parental rights bill that LGBTQ activists consider an attack on queer and trans youth.
The decision to demolish the 25,000-acre Reedy Creek, home to the Walt Disney World Resort, was widely viewed as retaliation for Disney’s opposition to Florida’s parental rights law, which bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergartens. I did. The law allows parents to sue the school district for violations.
In an order dismissing the taxpayer action, Chief Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga wrote that the action was outside the jurisdiction of the courts. Her five-page order states that state officials cannot sue in federal court for claims brought for alleged violations of state law. She also said residents of the state cannot sue Disney for alleged violations of First Amendment rights, they only have their own constitutional rights.
Altonaga also said the law removing the area won’t take effect until July 1 and that the taxpayer’s claims are “very speculative”.
“The theory of plaintiff’s position is that removal of the Reedy Creek improvement zone could cause financial harm to plaintiffs due to tax increases that have not yet been enacted,” Altonaga wrote. “That indirect and highly speculative injury cannot support federal jurisdiction. [The bill] By itself, it does not increase the plaintiff’s taxes. It is worth emphasizing once again. This measure does not apply to plaintiffs at all.”
William Sanchez, a lawyer for Florida residents who sued the state of Florida, did not immediately respond to the Times’ request for comment.
The dismissed complaint was filed on behalf of four Florida residents (three in Osceola County and one in Orange County). Their lawsuit alleges that the state violates its legal obligations to prevent the state from dissolving the area without resolving any outstanding debts, some experts say will pass to neighboring counties.
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw applauded the judge’s decision and reiterated the governor’s position that removing the district would not create an additional tax burden on Florida residents. No plans for local closures were announced.
“Perhaps this will put to rest the speculation of those who hope without any basis on the fact that it will end up with some sort of taxpayer or state burden that legitimate critics can use on the governor,” Pushaw said in an email. “Realistically, this opportunity can and should be used to generate more taxes from Disney, as the Governor said.”
This district will be removed on June 1, 2023, but can be restored after that date. That means it will take about a year for Disney and the state to come up with a new deal. This law seeks to dissolve all Florida Special Improvement Districts created before 1968. Disney has not commented on its decision to cancel its special tax status.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District spans approximately 40 square miles in both Orange and Osceola counties. Its boundaries include several theme parks, the Disney-owned ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, 175 miles of road, and the towns of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista. The 1967 Act allowed the company to transform vast areas of undeveloped wetland into Florida’s largest private employer and large tourism industry.
The debate over Florida’s parental rights legislation and Disney’s response to it continues for weeks, giving DeSantis a huge Hollywood escort for potential 2024 presidential candidate. Disney CEO Bob Chapek initially opposed the parental rights bill, saying it would make the company “political football”, but he did it under pressure from employees.
After Chapek expressed concerns, DeSantis accused Disney of being a “wake up” company trying to impose liberal values on Florida. Fox News and other conservative media have jumped into the culture war, and commentators including Laura Ingraham have accused Disney of pushing a “sexual agenda” to children.
In another move to punish Disney, a group of Republican lawmakers vowed to oppose any effort to extend the company’s copyright protections for Mickey Mouse, which had been extended twice since their original 1984 expiration date.
On Tuesday, Republican Senator Josh Hawley said he plans to introduce legislation that would take away Disney’s copyright protection this year.
Hawley, who is also a constitutional lawyer, tweeted: “There are no more handouts for the wake-up business. Disney officials declined to comment.
Times reporter Hugo Martin contributed to this report.