TALLAHASSEE, Fla — In a vote of 70 to 38, the Republican-backed Florida House gave a bill that would eliminate a handful of special tax districts across the state — including one that essentially allows Walt Disney World to operate its own local government — the final OK.
The Thursday vote on the chamber floor came in a rush as Democratic representatives held a protest during an "informal recess." Once all members returned to the chamber Speaker Chris Sprowls addressed the protests saying:
"As is obvious, we have members who've decided they wanted to hijack our process today. It is my belief and your belief that no member of this chamber has the opportunity to shut down our process, to shut down a job that the people of the public and the people of Florida have asked us to do. We will be concluding our business today."
Amid Sprowls comments yelling and chanting could be heard echoing through the chamber. The vote impacting special districts came quickly as a motion made to "call the previous question" was met with majority approval.
The bill aims to dissolve any independent special district established by a "special act" prior to the ratification of the Florida Constitution on Nov. 5, 1968, and has not been reestablished, re-ratified or reconstituted since.
If signed into law, said independent special districts would be dissolved by June 1, 2023. Any independent special district dissolved would have the ability to be reestablished at a later date "pursuant to the requirements and limitations of this chapter."
That would impact Disney's Reedy Creek Improvement District, which pundits have argued is being targeted as part of the fallout between Disney and DeSantis over the Parental Rights in Education law that's been dubbed by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill.
If the district is dissolved, many local and state leaders wonder who will have to pay the one billion dollar debt from bonds. “I don’t think anybody, even the sponsors of the legislation, have a good understanding of what the next steps are," said Tom Smythe, a finance professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.
The Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph says he thinks the debt will be sent over to Orange County. He says unfortunately he thinks this will force them to raise taxes for residents.
“The average homeowner could see a couple of hundred dollars more in property taxes. And, when you’re talking large businesses, you’re talking possibly tens of thousands of dollars in additional property taxes every year," explained Randolph.
A spokesperson for Osceola County sent the following statement on the latest developments to 10 Tampa Bay:
"Now that the legislature has passed a bill to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Osceola County Government will begin an analysis to understand the impacts in preparation for this going into effect, including evaluating any shifts in cost to Osceola as a result. As Disney and Reedy Creek have been self-contained, we are uncertain of what fiscal responsibilities will be encumbered after June 2023. Over the many years, Disney has been a strong community partner and we expect that relationship to continue as we work together for a transition plan."
Other districts that could be affected include the Bradford County Development Authority (Bradford County), Sunshine Water Control District (Broward County), Eastpoint Water and Sewer District (Franklin County), Hamilton County Development Authority (Hamilton County) and the Marion County Law Library (Marion County).
The bill now head's to Gov. Ron DeSantis' desk for signature or veto.