States are the test labs of liberty. Increasingly, they’re also the test labs for how culture war showdowns will play out. Recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signed Senate Bill 4-C, which would effectively dissolve Walt Disney Company’s independent tax district.

This special tax district has been a functional arrangement between the state of Florida and Walt Disney Company since 1967, allowing Disney to incur the costs associated with operating such a uniquely massive enterprise and local taxpayers and their municipal governments to avoid the burden of maintaining infrastructure tied to the sprawling property.

Inevitably, when public policy and culture warring collide, things will get complicated, messy, and heated. The House of Mouse’s uptick in political posturing, particularly its vocal opposition to the Florida legislature’s Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents, earned itself an enemy in Florida’s chief executive and potential 2024 presidential candidate. Worth noting is that the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC received over $100,000 in donations from Disney up until last year.

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It seems the love between DeSantis and Disney has been thoroughly severed. But will Osceola and Orange County residents become collateral damage in this war? That’s still up in the air according to the Florida Senate’s analysis.

Upon signing the law rescinding Disney’s Reedy Creek district, Gov. DeSantis’ press shop issued the following statement, “It is not the understanding or expectation for SB 4-C, abolishing independent special districts, to cause any tax increases for the residents of any area of Florida.” It remains to be seen what solution is offered. In the meantime, concerns over this bill’s impact on Floridians are being raised.

At the time of this writing, analysts predict that stripping Disney of their Reedy Creek district will saddle local Floridians with around $1 billion of Disney’s debt. Barring rescue from the state government, this could translate to as much as a 25 percent property tax increase for Osceola and Orange County residents. Perhaps most ironic is that Disney will effectively receive a $163 million dollar a year tax break, because they have now been absolved of their burden to maintain their own water, sewer, roads, and emergency services.

In an interview with Forbes, Jerry Demings, Mayor of Orange County Florida stated, “Getting rid of Reedy Creek [puts] ‘an undue burden’ on taxpayers ‘to fill that gap’ if Disney can no longer fund its own emergency services and the county does not get any extra revenue to fund it themselves.”

Like the rest of the country, Floridians have been swept up in rising energy, food, and housing costs thanks to forty-year high inflation. Saddling this subset of Florida taxpayers with economic liabilities in order to punish Disney would be reckless and short sighted.

When considering how significant the Parental Rights in Education bill’s passage is, despite all of its mainstream opposition, DeSantis’ targeted political retribution against Disney is somewhat perplexing. Although many conservatives feel Disney deserves the heat, there’s no denying that when a government official enters into the fray of punishing private entities for their political speech, no matter what political party they belong to, they are knocking on the doorstep of a First Amendment legal battle that could take years – and millions of dollars – to litigate in the courts.

We’ve seen such retributive behavior on the political left many times, whether it was in its battles with Masterpiece Cakeshop or the Little Sisters of the Poor. Do conservatives want to sink to such low speech suppression tactics, especially while at the same time decrying Big Tech for its censorship?

Nonetheless, some argue that it’s different in this case. Disney is woke, and if they want to play political games they shouldn’t be upset when they get political prizes. That argument is flawed on First Amendment grounds, as David French argues. Even beyond the question of its constitutionality, there’s the very near-term concerns surrounding how everyday Floridians will be affected.

Reedy Creek’s dissolution is a loss for Disney because they will now have a layer of bureaucracy slowing down their various growth projects, from zoning approvals to pothole fixes. Unfortunately, it will also be a loss for taxpayers who now seem poised to incur the $1 billion in debt and annual tax hikes to maintain this Disney district.

Many conservatives are understandably frustrated with big corporations pushing progressive talking points and their near constant drumbeat of identity politics. But there are rays of hope that the tides are beginning to shift, both politically and culturally. We don’t need pyrrhic victories when real ones are within reach. No matter how good it might feel to make Disney pay for their political activism, taxpayers and the First Amendment will never be acceptable collateral damage.

Brooke Medina is Vice President of Communications at the John Locke Foundation, a free market think tank in Raleigh, North Carolina.

(1) comment

SHC

What an odd way to frame it -- Disney's whipping boy? Really? If Florida taxpayers get hosed, it will be 100% the fault of Ron DeSantis and his statehouse sycophants.

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