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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is sued by four taxpayers that would be affected by Disney district debt


Four Floridians are suing Gov. Ron DeSantis for violating their rights as taxpayers by dissolving Disney World’s special district and leaving their counties to absorb the company’s $2 billion bond debts.

They argue that Gov. DeSantis is violating the law that established the district in the first place as well as the Florida Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights by suddenly transferring the special district’s debt to their counties. They also say Disney’s rights to free speech and due process are being trampled on.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District was set up in 1967 and takes care of building permits, trash pick-up and other basic functions at Disney’s 25,000-acre property.

Disney pays millions of dollars in extra taxes to fund the district, which keeps the park and surrounding areas pristine for its nearly 21 million visitors a year.

The district funds itself partly through loans, or bonds. Taxpayers in surrounding counties may now have to pay those back at steep but albeit lower rate, threatening bondholders who now expect to earn back less than they were originally promised, Mediaite reports.

Families will be on the hook for a tax bill anywhere between $2,200 and $2,800 each come June 2023, Orange County estimates.

Gov. DeSantis signed a bill to dissolve the special district late last month, after Disney bowed to pressure from its employees and came out against the state’s Republican-backed ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and two other state officials are being sued by four Disney area taxpayers who say their rights are being violated by having to take on Disney’s debt. Above, DeSantis after signing a bill to dissolve Disney’s special district on April 22

Osceola and Orange counties would likely have to spread Disney's tax liability among all taxpayers, which one tax collector estimated would raise taxes between $2,200 and $2,800 per family of four

Osceola and Orange counties would likely have to spread Disney’s tax liability among all taxpayers, which one tax collector estimated would raise taxes between $2,200 and $2,800 per family of four

State law stipulates that Florida taxpayers must be treated equally across all of the state's counties, unless there is a special taxing district 'specifically authorizing' differential treatment

State law stipulates that Florida taxpayers must be treated equally across all of the state’s counties, unless there is a special taxing district ‘specifically authorizing’ differential treatment

Conservative supporters of DeSantis applauded the governor for taking a stand against the company. Disney has not responded to the scheduled dissolution of its special district. 

Tuesday’s lawsuit was brought by Michael, Eduard and Leslie Foronda of Kissimmee, which lies in Osceola County. A fourth plaintiff, Vivian Gorsky, lives in Orange County.

It was filed in the federal Middle District of Florida by William J. Sanchez, a Miami-based attorney and a Democrat who is running for Senate in Florida this year.

It names DeSantis along with Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Florida Department of Revenue Director Jim Zingale.

What is the Parental Rights in Education law?

HB 1557 was introduced by two Republican members of the Florida Legislature – Representative Joe Harding and Senator Dennis Baxley.

They say the bill’s aim is to ’empower parents’ in their children’s education, and make teachers recognize the distinction between ‘instruction’ and ‘discussion.’

‘What we’re prohibiting is instructing them in a specific direction,’ Baxley said about how teachers lead students in a classroom. 

‘Students can talk about whatever they want to bring up, but sometimes the right answer is, ”You really ought to talk to your parents about that.”’

It states that ‘classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur.’

Part of it applies to kids in kindergarten through third grade, while a vague portion bans all discussion of ‘sexual orientation or gender identity’ in a ‘manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.’

It also requires districts to ‘adopt procedures for notifying a student’s parent if there is a change in the student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being,’ something LGBTQ advocates argue could lead to students being outed to their parents without the student’s knowledge or consent.

The state House approved the bill in February. It was passed in the state Senate on March 8 in a 22-17 vote. DeSantis signed it into law on March 28 and it will come into effect on July 1.

Disney pays $150 million in extra taxes to fund the district, Mediaite reports. 

The company already pays taxes to Orange and Osceola along with extra high taxes to its own district, which has the highest ‘millage rate’ in the state.

The taxpayers argue that the repeal of the district will lead to a higher tax burden for them since Disney will no longer be solely funding its own operations. They say thousands of jobs will be lost if the district is eliminated.

They’re asking for a judge to hold the law to dissolve the Reedy Creek district unlawful because it would unfairly burden then with more taxes.

The law repealing the 55-year-old district, one of 1,800 in the state, was signed on April 22 after it was fast-tracked by the Republican-controlled state legislature.

The RCID is set to be dissolved on June 1, 2023.

But Gov. DeSantis’ decision to end the district is a violation of the promise that the state of Florida made to taxpayers when it created it in 1967.

The original agreement stipulated that Florida would not dissolve the district until all its financial obligations are met, which is a problem considering the district still holds anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion in debt, the lawsuit states.

The state promised bondholders, or lenders, that it would not ‘modify’ the way the district collects taxes ‘until all such bonds together with interest thereon, and all costs and expenses in connection with any action or proceeding by or on behalf of such holders, are fully met and discharged.’

The taxpayers argue that as ‘third-party beneficiaries’ of the Reedy Creek Act, the ‘convenience, comfort and welfare’ that was promised to them will be violated if they suddenly have to pay back the media conglomerate’s massive debts.

They also argue that DeSantis is violating Florida’s Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights. 

The state law ‘guarantee[s] that the rights, privacy and property of Florida taxpayers are adequately safeguarded and protected during tax assessment, collection, and enforcement processes,’ according to the complaint.

Repealing that will ‘unquestionably infringe’ on their right to a ‘fair and consistent application of the tax laws of the state’ because the bill was specifically created to punish Disney for its political position.

In that vein, the taxpayers argue that DeSantis is violating Disney’s First Amendment right to free speech and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.  

‘Corporations are obviously capable of expressing themselves, as Disney did when it spoke out against the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. If a government retaliates and attempts to punish a speaker’s freedom of speech, they are violating the speaker’s constitutional rights. That appears to be exactly what Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is doing to Disney,’ the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit is the first of many that experts expect will be filed after Disney suffered backlash for its stance on the Parental Rights in Education law. 

The law, set to take effect in July, states that ‘classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur.’

Part of it applies to kids in kindergarten through third grade, while a vague portion bans all discussion of ‘sexual orientation or gender identity’ in a ‘manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.’

Disney CEO Bob Chapek told employees during a virtual town hall that he regretted not taking a public stance against Florida's controversial 'Don't Say Gay' bill and that the company will create a task force to focus on more LGBTQ content

Disney CEO Bob Chapek told employees during a virtual town hall that he regretted not taking a public stance against Florida’s controversial ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and that the company will create a task force to focus on more LGBTQ content

Disney, whose biggest theme park is in Orlando, originally didn’t take a position on the bill. 

The multinational media conglomerate later bowed to pressure from its employees after dozens of them staged walkouts and spoke out on social media.

Disney CEO Bob Chapek said he regretted not taking a stance against the bill earlier and expressed support for employee walkouts.

In a virtual meeting in March, Chapek said: ‘I and the leadership team are determined to use this moment as a catalyst for more meaningful and lasting change.’

Among other measures to smooth out edges after a rough start to his tenure in January, Chapek told employees that Disney would put together a task force to make sure that more LGBTQ-awareness content is available for children. 

Disney faced quick backlash from conservatives and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who spearheaded an effort to strip the company of its special district.

Last week, the Reedy Creek board of supervisors carried on with business as usual, barely mentioning the decision to dissolve the district. 

The issue wasn’t even on the agenda, but it was briefly mentioned during a discussion on solar panels.

District administrator John Classe said that a planned expansion of the solar energy program could be delayed due to financial challenges caused by the new law, according to WESH reporter Bob Hazen.

The district handles permits, trash collection and emergency services for the Orlando-area theme park. 

On Wednesday morning, Reedy Creek officials seemed just as confused as everyone else about what will come next, as it’s revealed that the district’s $2 billion bond debts could be transferred to Orange and Osceola counties, leaving taxpayers on the hook for as much as $2,800 per family of four.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District board met last week for the first time since Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law to dissolve it next year

The Reedy Creek Improvement District board met last week for the first time since Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law to dissolve it next year

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is sued by four taxpayers that would be affected by Disney district debt

The Reedy Creek district employs more than 400 people who enjoy benefits like health care and complimentary lifetime Disney passes, a value of up to $1,300 a year

Employees have been left in the dark as to what comes next for the district, says firefighter and union president Jon Shirey, who was reportedly the only one to address the issue directly on Wednesday

Employees have been left in the dark as to what comes next for the district, says firefighter and union president Jon Shirey, who was reportedly the only one to address the issue directly on Wednesday

The district’s 400 employees would also lose their jobs and benefits, which include lifetime complimentary Disney passes worth as much as $1,300 a year.

District supervisor Don Greer told Hazen: ‘If it’s going to be different than what we have, it will have to look like what it is. Because there’s just too much here to dump on anybody else.’

Reedy Creek firefighter and union head Jon Shirey was the only one to tackle the issue head-on, according to Spectrum News 13 reporter Rebecca Turco

‘What is that message?’ he asked, saying that employees of the district have been told to not speak to the media about the upcoming dissolution of the district.

Shirey has openly wondered what will become of the benefits enjoyed by the district’s 400 employees, including health insurance and complimentary lifetime Disney passes.

‘For our retirees who plan their lives and their finances around a benefit that they were promised for life, this is incredibly concerning,’ Shirey told the Orlando Sentinel.  





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