For Joe Biden, the vote by Florida Republicans on Thursday to strip Disney of its self-governing powers was a step too far.
“Christ, they’re going after Mickey Mouse,” the president exclaimed at a fundraiser in Oregon, in apparent disbelief that state governor Ron DeSantis’s culture wars had reached the gates of the Magic Kingdom.
The move, Biden asserted, reflected his belief that the “far right has taken over the party”.
By voting to penalize Florida’s largest private employer, lawmakers followed DeSantis’s wishes in securing revenge on a company he brands as “woke” for its opposition to his “don’t say gay” law.
DeSantis is a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. He has pushed his legislature on several rightwing laws in recent weeks, including a 15-week abortion ban, stripping Black voters of congressional representation and preventing discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity issues in schools.
On Friday, the governor signed the anti-Disney law as well as a measure banning critical race theory in schools and the controversial new electoral map. Voting rights groups including the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute and the Equal Ground Education Fund filed suit against the new electoral map, in state court in Tallahassee.
“This is not your father’s Republican party,” Biden said at the fundraiser in Oregon.
“It’s not even conservative in a traditional sense of conservatism. It’s mean, it’s ugly. Look at what’s happening in Florida: Christ, they’re going after Mickey Mouse.”
Analysts are still grappling with the likely effects of the Disney law, which will disband an entity officially known as the Reedy Creek improvement district.
The body, which was approved by Florida legislators in 1967, gives Disney autonomous powers, including generating its own tax revenue and self-governance as it built its hugely popular theme parks.
Ending the 55-year agreement, Democrats says, will leave local residents on the hook for the functions Reedy Creek was responsible for paying for, including police and fire services, and road construction and maintenance.
The state senator Gary Farmer, a vocal opponent of DeSantis, said families in Orange and Osceola counties that straddle the 25,000-acre Disney World resort could each face property tax raises of $2,200 annually to cover the shortfall. His claim is so far unsubstantiated.
Republicans have been unable to point to any financial advantage to the state, and appear to be relying instead on the political argument that the concept of the “special taxing district” was outdated and in need of reform.
“Aside from maybe taking away the company’s ability to build a nuclear plant, we have yet to hear how this benefits Florida, and especially the local residents in any way,” Nick Papantonis, a reporter who covers Disney for Orlando’s WFTV, said in a Twitter analysis.
“The residents, by the way, had no say in this vote, no say in their property taxes going through the roof, and no desire to have their communities staring at financial ruin.”
If in practice DeSantis’s goal is to punish Disney, some say the move could backfire, at least financially. Reedy Creek’s abolition on 1 June next year would give it an immediate tax break. The $163m it taxes itself annually to pay for service and pay off debt becomes the responsibility of the county taxpayers.
“The moment that Reedy Creek doesn’t exist is the moment that those taxes don’t exist,” the Orange county tax collector Scott Randolph, a Democrat, told WFTV. “[And] Orange county can’t just slap a new taxing district on to that area and recoup the money that was lost.”
Most of Disney’s estimated 77,000 cast members, as its workers are known, live in those two counties, so would effectively end up paying their employer’s taxes as well as their own, critics say.
Disney has remained silent, its most recent comment on the entire affair being the hard-hitting statement that upset DeSantis in the first place. The company, which has a notably diverse cast, promised to work to overturn the “don’t say gay” law, and added it was halting all political donations.
Disney contributed almost $1m to the Republican party of Florida in 2020, and $50,000 directly to DeSantis, records show.
Whatever it decides to do, Disney has options. In a probably tongue-in-cheek offer, the Colorado governor, Jared Polis, is offering “asylum” to Mickey Mouse in his state. But he was critical of DeSantis’s stance.
“Florida’s authoritarian socialist attacks on the private sector are driving businesses away. In CO, we don’t meddle in affairs of companies like Disney or Twitter. Hey @Disney we’re ready for Mountain Disneyland,” he said in a tweet.
Legal challenges are expected once DeSantis signs the Reedy Creek abolition into law, and Republicans point out they could revisit the issue next year before it takes effect.
Democrats are dismissive: “Let’s call this what it is, it’s the punitive, petulant political payback to a corporation who dared to say the emperor has no clothes, but if they behave this way next election cycle, maybe we’ll put it back together,” Farmer, the state senator, said.
Some political analysts, meanwhile, believe DeSantis is walking a tightrope.
“The base is demanding of the Republican party these culture war elements, at least that’s what these politicians are thinking, so they’re using these attacks on ‘woke’ corporations as a way of energizing their base so they can win in 2022 and 2024,” Charles Zelden, professor of humanities and politics at Nova Southeastern University and a longtime Florida Disney watcher, told the Guardian.
“The downside is it’s bringing them into conflict with corporations they had a very comfortable relationship with for a lot of years, who have donated a lot of money to their campaigns.”