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Following dispute, DeSantis exacts (some) revenge against Disney

The fact Florida Republicans punished Disney because the company fell out of line with the GOP’s rhetorical demands is extraordinary.


Gov. Ron DeSantis set out to punish Disney, and as The New York Times reported, the Florida Republican succeeded — at least in part.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida gained control on Friday of the board that oversees development at Walt Disney World, a move that restricts the autonomy of Disney, the state’s largest private employer, over its theme-park complex and strips some perks enjoyed by the company for 56 years. The changes are the result of a bill that the Florida Legislature approved at the urging of Mr. DeSantis, who fought with Disney last year over an education law that limits the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

The far-right governor seemed eager to thump his chest last week, boasting, in reference to his victory over Disney, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

Sort of. As the Times’ report explained, DeSantis’ original plan was to revoke Disney World’s designation as a special tax district, which has “effectively allowed Disney to self-govern the 25,000-acre resort since its founding.” That’s not the policy the governor ended up with: The Republican will instead have control over the local district’s board.

That matters, and it’s likely to have an impact on Disney’s bottom line, but the company will “be allowed to keep ... almost all its perks, including the ability to issue tax-exempt bonds and approve development plans without scrutiny from certain local regulators.”

Nevertheless, it’s worth appreciating the circumstances surrounding these developments.

Revisiting our coverage from last year, the trouble began when Florida Republicans approved what critics have labeled the “Don’t Say Gay” policy. Disney was initially silent on the matter, but under pressure from many of its employees, the corporate giant eventually criticized the GOP’s anti-LGBTQ measure.

For DeSantis, the mild and inconsequential criticisms could not stand — and the drive to punish Disney began soon after. The governor said the company “crossed the line” by daring to oppose his regressive policy after it had already passed, and his lieutenant governor, Republican Jeanette Núñez, questioned whether companies like Disney even have the “right to criticize” state policymakers’ work.

On the one hand, DeSantis insists Florida is the nation’s “freest” state. On the other hand, he and his GOP allies had no qualms about targeting one of his state’s largest businesses for expressing an opinion that was out of step with the Republican Party’s culture war.

To be sure, there’s no reason to see the Reedy Creek Improvement District — the extraordinary Orlando-area taxing jurisdiction originally afforded to the Disney Corporation in 1967 — as untouchable, and there’s ample room for a spirited debate over how policymakers approach special corporate benefits. To have concerns about how Republicans approach these issues is not to say that Disney or any other private-sector giant somehow deserves lucrative breaks from politicians.

But motivations matter, and the idea of a business facing punishment because it fell out of line with the GOP’s rhetorical demands is extraordinary.

This post revises our related earlier coverage.