Florida Legislature hands the renamed Reedy Creek district to DeSantis

The Florida Legislature concluded its special session on Friday and passed new laws that renamed the Reedy Creek Improvement District and put its control in the hands of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Legislature approved a bill in April to dissolve all independent special districts created before 1968. The bill’s authors and DeSantis made it clear it was intended to punish the Walt Disney Co., which Reedy Creek was created to serve.

Disney had voiced strong opposition to the state’s Parental Rights in Education Act, called the “Don’t Say Gay” billion by its critics. The law banned public school instruction for children through the third grade about sexual orientation or gender identity.

The new law gives the governor the power to appoint the district’s board members and renames it the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

“We promised transparency and accountability in how our special districts operate. House Bill 9 delivers on that promise while also ensuring that local residents are not shouldered with the burden of the district’s debts,” said the sponsor Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud.

“This legislation was a well-thought-out approach to modernize the district and eliminate special advantages that are not available to anyone else,” he said.

The bill is written to reassure holders of the Reedy Creek district’s almost $1 billion of outstanding municipal bond debt.

“No bond or other instrument of indebtedness previously issued by the district or any district project financed by bonds or other instruments of indebtedness shall be affected by this act,” according to the bill. “The provisions of this act shall not affect existing contracts that the district entered into prior to the effective date of this act.”

The Reedy Creek district was created in 1967 to help Disney develop the property into a theme park. It is a special tax and governing taxing district for the land owned by Disney World in Orlando. It has the same authority as a county government and includes 39 square miles of land in Orange and Osceola counties.

The district was mostly funded by property taxes, with Disney accounting for 88% of its tax base. At the end of fiscal 2021, the Reedy Creek district had about $719 million in tax-secured debt and $185 million in utility debt outstanding.

The district had been governed by a board of supervisors selected by the district’s landowners, according to the official statement for a 2020 bond sale. As Disney and its affiliates own most of the land, it effectively controlled the board.

The Legislature took action on two other special districts that had been affected by the April action, reauthorizing the Sunshine Water Control District and the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District.

“The Sunshine Water Control District is a valuable part of our local infrastructure, which provides surface water management services to portions of Broward County,” said Rep. Dan Daley, D-Sunrise, sponsor of House Bill 11B. “Thanks to the support of my colleagues in the House and Senate, the district will continue to provide the high-quality service we have come to expect since 1963.”

Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe, sponsored House Bill 13B, which re-established the Eastpoint Water and Sewer District.

“The district provides an important function providing potable water and preserving our rivers, estuaries, and ecosystem,” Shoaf said.

Separately, lawmakers passed House Bill 5B sponsored by Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, targeting foreign migrants coming to the state.

The bill created the “Unauthorized Alien Transport Program” to facilitate the “voluntary transport” of unauthorized migrants who have been processed by the federal government and released into the United States.

“Border patrol encounters and illegal entries into the United States are at an all-time high because Washington refuses to act. Florida will not allow the Biden administration’s failures to threaten the safety and well-being of our citizens,” Snyder said.

Additionally, lawmakers approved several other bills, including providing more funding for hurricane relief, asserting state control over election fraud prosecutions and the governing of college athletes’ financial control of their names, images and likenesses.

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