DeSantis-aligned board votes to sue Disney

May 01, 2023 11:50 PM

CNN-The board overseeing Disney’s special taxing district – which was appointed by and is aligned with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – voted on Monday to sue the company days after the entertainment giant filed its own lawsuit against the board.

“Since Disney sued us – yes, we didn’t sue Disney, Disney sued us – we have no choice now but to respond,” said Martin Garcia, chairman of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board of supervisors. “Yes, we’ll seek justice in our own backyard.”

CNN has reached out to Disney for comment.

The dueling lawsuits follow 14 months of escalating tensions between the Florida governor and Disney over a state law that restricts the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The fight has intensified in recent months after the Republican leader moved to take over the company’s special taxing district and install a hand-picked board to oversee Disney’s vast holdings around Orlando. Before the board was selected in February, Disney had reached agreements with the outgoing board that limited the power of DeSantis’ appointees.

The new board voted last week to nullify those agreements, prompting Disney to sue DeSantis and the new board. In the lawsuit, Disney accuses DeSantis of weaponizing his political power to punish the company for exercising its free speech rights.

Garcia said the purpose of suing Disney is to “uphold and enforce” the board’s vote to void Disney’s pacts with the previous board.

The lawsuit will be filed in a Central Florida state court, Garcia said. Disney sued DeSantis and the board in federal court in the Northern District of Florida. The judge in the case, Mark Walker, is an appointee of former President Barack Obama, who has ruled against the state on several of DeSantis’ priorities.

In an interview over the weekend with the British newspaper The Telegraph, DeSantis accused Disney of “forum shopping” for a favorable judge.

The district, formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, was created in 1967. It essentially gave Disney control of the land where it planned to build its theme park empire, including providing services like sewage, fire rescue and road maintenance where no such government functions existed at the time. During the next six decades, Disney turned Central Florida swampland into one of the most-visited attractions in the world. That special arrangement, though criticized at times, was largely protected by state politicians as both Disney and Florida benefited from the tourism boom.

But Garcia said that times have changed and Disney is trying to block the state from taking action to wind down that arrangement.

“In essence, Disney is asking a federal court in Tallahassee to wrestle back the hands of time to 1967 while this board is instead charged legislatively, with bringing the district into the 21st century, with new and better policies and practices,” Garcia said.

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