TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida lawmakers introduced proposals Wednesday to strip Disney of its self-governing status, expand a controversial migrant transportation program and strengthen prosecutions linked to the state’s police department.
The bills, part of a hastily convened special legislative session in the GOP-controlled state House, are key priorities for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis as he focuses on cultural issues ahead of his expected bid for the White House in 2024.
Republicans on the House State Affairs Committee have approved legislation to end the state takeover of Walt Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District. The measures come as the governor chastises the company for its opposition to a law critics called “Don’t Say Gay,” which bans the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and lessons deemed age-inappropriate.
The proposal would leave much of the district intact, including its financial obligations, but would rename it the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and require DeSantis to appoint a five-member governing board. Board members were previously named through individuals controlled by Disney.
“This will undoubtedly now be controlled by the state of Florida, which is no longer self-governing for them,” DeSantis said at a news conference Wednesday. “So there’s a new sheriff in town and that’s just how it’s going to be.”
Having a separate government allows the Disney District to issue bonds and provide zoning, fire protection, utilities and infrastructure services on its land. Republican opponents of the district argue that it gives Disney a commercial advantage unavailable to others.
Democratic Rep. Anna Escamani said the governor would have too much control over the district when appointing board members and called the takeover a power grab.
“I often see this as a low-security prison that the company operates in, where they can pretty much do whatever they want, but if they veer off course, they will be punished,” she said. “And when you have one official — the governor — appointing board members, it’s not designed to be balanced. It is designed to pursue what his political motivations and values are.
The Disney District legislation now moves to the full House.
Also Wednesday, Republicans in the full Senate and the House Judiciary Committee passed separate bills to further implement DeSantis’ agenda on immigration and voter fraud.
One proposal would be to create an unauthorized alien transportation program in the governor’s office to move migrants into the country if they have been processed by the federal government.
The program will contribute to DeSantis’ migrant relocation initiative, which began last year when the Republican used taxpayer dollars to ferry about 50 South American migrants from Texas to the Massachusetts resort island of Martha’s Vineyard to protest federal immigration policies.
The flight to Martha’s Vineyard, in addition to drawing condemnation, raised legal questions because the governor’s office paid for the trip with money intended to transport migrants who were in Florida, not Texas or another state. The bill lawmakers are considering specifies that future flights could move migrants from anywhere in the U.S.
The Senate bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Blaise Ingolia, said the program would help migrants by taking them to liberal so-called “sanctuary cities.”
“The state of Florida is not and will never be a sanctuary state,” he said. “It’s time for these sanctuary cities to put their money on the line.”
Democrats have sharply criticized the governor’s migrant flight program and argued Wednesday that DeSantis is making political pawns out of migrants.
“I don’t know why we’re singling them out, making them feel uncomfortable,” said Sen. Laurie Berman, a Democrat. “This is basically a political stunt that we’re doing here in the state of Florida.”
The other proposal would clarify that the state attorney general has the authority to prosecute election crimes in federal and state races, legislation that aims to strengthen the power of the governor’s new election police.
DeSantis pushed lawmakers last year to create a law enforcement division focused on election crimes, responding to concerns from conservative voters after the 2020 election. But in the months that followed, some of the division’s charges were thrown out by judges because of jurisdictional issues.
The measures still face additional legislative hearings before reaching final passage, although they are expected to pass through parliament.
AP writer Kurt Anderson contributed from St. Petersburg.