DeSantis signs bill allowing Florida board to cancel Disney deals

By Joseph Ax and Dawn Chmielewski

(Reuters) -Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Friday signed a bill into law that gives a new board he controls the power to void development agreements its predecessor body signed with Disney – the latest episode in a feud between the conservative governor and the entertainment giant.

Under the bill, which passed the Republican-controlled legislature largely along party lines, the Central Tourism Oversight District Board – whose members are appointed by DeSantis – can cancel any deals signed up to three months before the board’s creation.

“Make no mistake about it, the reason why the legislature had to act was not because of anything we did,” DeSantis said at a news conference Friday. “It was basically born out of Disney’s arrogance that they would be able to subcontract around the duly enacted laws of the state of Florida. That’s wrong.”

Walt Disney Co declined to comment.

The legislature formed the board in February to replace the Disney-controlled Reedy Creek Improvement District to oversee development in the 25,000 acres (10,120 hectares) surrounding Walt Disney World, effectively wresting control from the company and handing it to DeSantis.

Disney, the largest employer in central Florida, and the Republican governor have been battling since last year, when Disney criticized a new state law banning classroom instruction of sexuality and gender identity with younger children.

DeSantis, who is expected to declare his candidacy for U.S. president in coming weeks, has repeatedly attacked “woke Disney” in public remarks, characterizing it as liberal.

“We have a fundamental disagreement in this state, in terms of what we think is appropriate for children, and what the people in Burbank, California, think is appropriate,” said DeSantis. Disney is based in Burbank.

Before DeSantis’ appointees took over the board, the company pushed through changes to the special tax district agreement that limited the new body’s action for decades.

The new oversight body in April said Disney’s plans for potential expansion of Disney World did not comply with state law, and declared that agreement void.

Disney filed a lawsuit in federal court the same day, accusing DeSantis of illegally using government power to punish the company for exercising its free speech rights.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board responded with its own lawsuit in a state court, saying it sought to void “backroom deals” favorable to Disney.

Disney’s stock is up nearly 16% in the year to date, compared with an 8% gain in the S&P 500 index.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax and Dawn Chmielewski; additional reporting by Brad Brooks; editing by Jonathan Oatis)