Orange County officials plan to pursue a revamp of the Disney district

A proposal to return control of a special taxing district to the Walt Disney Co. received support from Orange County lawmakers on Friday, despite being considered a longshot. The proposal aims to undo the changes made to the former Reedy Creek Improvement District after a feud between Governor Ron DeSantis and the entertainment giant. In a voice vote, members of the Democrat-dominated Orange County legislative delegation backed a House bill that seeks to repeal the law passed last year, which renamed the district as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and granted DeSantis the authority to appoint the district’s board.

Senator Linda Stewart, a Democrat from Orlando, expressed concerns about the lack of transparency in the actions of the new board and called for a revision of how the district operates. She stated that the bill’s purpose is to start over and have a genuine discussion about how the organization can be helpful, rather than tearing it apart. On the other hand, Representative Doug Bankson, a Republican from Apopka, opposed the proposal, arguing that it is a repeal effort rather than an attempt to fix the existing issues.

Representative Carolina Amesty, a Republican from Windermere, raised concerns about not being approached regarding the proposal, as it directly involves her House district. She questioned whether the bill would even be heard in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Amesty emphasized the importance of focusing on actual policies that can make a positive impact on the lives of the residents they represent, rather than engaging in political theater.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District, which was largely controlled by Disney, had authority over land use, fire protection, and sewer services in the area that includes Disney parks and resorts. The district was created by the state in the 1960s. However, tensions between Disney and Governor DeSantis arose in 2022 when the company criticized a state law restricting classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.

In response, the Legislature, at DeSantis’ urging, voted to dissolve Reedy Creek and five other special districts across the state. However, the dissolutions were not immediate, and lawmakers later decided to replace the Reedy Creek board instead. Senator Stewart’s proposal aims to terminate the terms of the current board members while preserving any existing contracts they have entered.

Orange County Commissioner Nicole Wilson expressed her concerns about the district becoming a “pawn” in a larger battle that is negatively impacting the lives of people in the region. She highlighted the resulting uncertainty and loss of talented individuals who previously took care of local government functions such as maintaining infrastructure.

Disney, the state, and the new district board have been involved in state and federal lawsuits since last year’s changes. Disney has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the state retaliated against the company unconstitutionally due to its opposition to the 2022 education law. Senator Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat from Windermere, described the chaos that has ensued since the establishment of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board as detrimental to their constituents.

This is not the first time Senator Stewart has proposed such a change. A similar proposal in late November faced opposition when three Republican lawmakers walked out of a meeting before a vote could be held. Their contention was that the delegation’s rules required its leaders to have at least 50 percent of their districts in Orange County.

As the battle for control over the special taxing district continues, the fate of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District remains uncertain. The outcome of the proposed House bill and its potential impact on the relationship between Disney, the state, and the residents of Orange County will likely be closely watched by all parties involved.

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