Ron DeSantis

In DeSantis Vs. Disney World, Governor Misstates Facts on Taxes

In making his case for the takeover this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis misstated the facts about how Disney’s property has been appraised for tax purposes

NBC Universal, Inc.

The battle between Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney World appears headed to court, after lawyers for the board DeSantis appointed to oversee the resort’s property and municipal services accused the company Wednesday in a public meeting of violating the state’s laws and constitution.

Disney seized back powers from the Reedy Creek Improvement District in February, just before DeSantis replaced it with his own board.

But lawyers for the new board said the development agreement and restrictive covenants that allow the company to decide where and how future development occurs do not pass legal muster.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers are ratcheting up pressure on Walt Disney World. They announced on Monday plans to introduce legislation that would end an exemption for Disney parks, allowing the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to inspect Disney rides.

“Disney responded by engaging in an illegal and indeed unconstitutional effort to extend the life of its sweetheart deal,” attorney David Thompson told the board that hired him. “But Disney’s efforts are riddled with illegality, and they will not withstand judicial scrutiny…. The bottom line is Disney engaged in a caper worthy of Scrooge McDuck to try to evade Florida law.”

But in making his case for the takeover this week, DeSantis misstated the facts about how Disney’s property has been appraised for tax purposes.

For more than 50 years, Disney was able to run its own government in the 40 square miles in and around its parks in Central Florida. It did so by allowing a few loyal employees to live on the property, making them the only people who could vote for and serve on the Reedy Creek board of supervisors, where they carried out the company’s wishes.

But after Disney criticized DeSantis’ law limiting teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity – what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law -- the governor retaliated.

“We view that as a provocation and we’re going to fight back against that,” DeSantis said last year on the day he signed into law a bill that would have dissolved Reedy Creek in June 2023. “Now people say you have services, utilities -- we’re going to take care of all that. Don’t worry. We have everything thought out.”

NBC 6 anchor Cherney Amhara has more on the latest in this controversial issue.

But it soon became clear DeSantis had not thought everything out, said JC Planas, a former state legislator and attorney who teaches law students about Reedy Creek and Disney World.

State law would have shifted about $1 billion in Disney bond debt and other expenses to the taxpayers of Orange and Osceola counties, had DeSantis’ original plan been allowed to continue.

So this year he tried again, having the legislature pass a bill clarifying the state’s role and giving him the sole power to appoint the five members of the board what is now called the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

But, it appears, the governor still does not  have a full grasp of the issue.

In remarks during a news conference Monday at the district offices, DeSantis misstated the facts about how Disney’s property has been appraised in the past.

“I mean basically you had a situation where the company could appraise its own property,” DeSantis falsely stated. “Imagine if you could appraise your own property. Would you appraise it too high or too low? Of course, you’re going to do it too low, lower in terms of taxes.” He then said the new board would “get a more honest assessment.”

Later, he added, “If you’re undervaluing property, that means you’re not paying your fair share right there. You get your property assessed by a third party. You don't get to assess your own property for purposes of taxes.”

But the fact is, Planas said, neither Disney nor the Reedy Creek district had that power.

The property appraisers for Orange and Osceola counties appraise Disney property like all others, and property taxes are based on those values. Disney’s total property value is $124 billion and it pays more than $1 billion a year in state and local taxes, the most of any other taxpayer in central Florida.

Disney, like any property owner, can challenge those valuations, claiming they are too high – and the company has done so for years, filing lawsuits that remain pending.

But, Planas, said, they never had the ability to set their own appraisals, as DeSantis claimed.

NBC6 asked the governor’s office repeatedly since Tuesday afternoon if DeSantis was confused, misinformed or intentionally misstated the facts about the property appraisal process, but received no response to our questions.

Planas, a former Republican legislator, said the battle between the governor and Disney is being waged on at least two fronts.

“DeSantis is going to end up losing the public relations battle,” he predicted. “I find it hard to believe that Florida residents are going to allow a war on the number one employer in the state.”

And on the legal front, DeSantis may have problems, too.

First there’s the threshold hurdle of a court finding the new board has standing to attack the deals produced by the 11th hour maneuvering Disney did with Reedy Creek – illegally entering into a contract with itself, the new board’s attorney claimed.

Then there’s a potential constitutional challenge by Disney, he said.

“If it comes out that Florida is trying to use the power of government to be punitive to Disney because they exercised their opinions or to influence Disney content, you have serious First Amendment issues there,” he said.

Board chair Martin Garcia showed no signs of backing down, saying, “Our board truly wanted to work with Disney. Instead, the corporation decided compromise was out of the question. It was Disney’s way or the highway.”

It now appears all roads will lead to a courtroom.

Contact Us