Florida lt. gov: We might back off Disney if they changed their politics

I hope people following this story appreciate how unusual it is for government officials to admit they’re engaged in blatant viewpoint discrimination. Usually when the ruling party looks to punish its political enemies, it grasps for some “neutral” justification to do so, knowing that the clearer it is that they’re using state power to bully a private actor the more likely it is that a court will find a First Amendment violation.

There’s no pretense of a “neutral” justification in the DeSantis versus Disney war. The discrimination is so blatant that it has some wondering if Florida Republicans are secretly trying to make it easy for a court to throw out the new bill ending Disney’s special improvement district.

Why would Republicans want to do that, you ask? More on that in a second. First, here’s the lieutenant governor flatly admitting to crony capitalism, acknowledging that the laws governing Disney’s business practices in Florida depend on their acquiescence in the GOP’s political agenda.

A common criticism of Disney this week among MAGA types is that if the company insists on getting involved in politics then it should be prepared to accept the consequences. Right, except (a) Disney has been involved in politics in Florida for decades. They may be the single most powerful lobbyist in Tallahassee. They’ve thrown around millions of dollars in contributions, mostly to Republicans, over the past decade. And (b) it’s not true that DeSantis and his apologists object to Disney “getting involved in politics.” What they object to is Disney getting involved in politics on the other side. If Disney invited DeSantis to be the guest of honor at a parade in front of the Magic Kingdom to celebrate passage of the “don’t say gay” bill, its special improvement district would be sacrosanct.

Since when do “conservatives” believe corporations have no right to get involved in politics, anyway? The point of the Citizens United decision championed by Republicans for years was that corporations and other outside groups have a First Amendment right to spend money on political causes they support.

I can’t believe we’ve reached the point where Jenna Ellis is a voice of reason, but here we are:

The move against Disney is guaranteed to accelerate a race to the bottom in which ambitious politicians in red and blue states seek to punish companies whose politics are different in order to prove their toughness and commitment to their cause. The tear in the social fabric will widen, and businesses may begin to self-sort geographically to reduce the risk of having their activities upended if they happen to run afoul of the politics of the ruling regime. If Disney were planning any expansion of DisneyWorld or any new initiatives in Florida, they’d be fools to go ahead with them now instead of shopping around to bluer states.

Philip Klein has a smart short essay today on the obnoxiousness of what he calls “Fight Club conservatism” and what I call “banana Republicanism”:

Fight Club Conservatives spent this week defending the DeSantis-led actions of the state legislature by arguing precisely that it was important to pummel Disney — not just to punish the company, but to send a message to other woke corporations…

Using the state as a vehicle to reward friends and punish enemies is something that conservatives once excoriated, for good reason, as Gangster Government. Government policy toward individuals and businesses should be neutral to whether or not those in government agree or disagree with a given person or entity. Conservatives cheering on the idea of the government splitting the populace into friends and enemies should also recognize that there are times when they will end up as enemies of the state.

The most bizarre element of this sordid episode is that DeSantis won. It’s not as if Disney’s lobbyists succeeded in foiling passage of the “don’t say gay” bill and DeSantis, denied his glorious culture-war victory, lashed out in a fit of pique. The bill passed. Disney barely said a word about it publicly, in fact, until its own pro-LGBT employees called out their CEO and pressured him into condemning it. What we’re seeing this week is DeSantis in sore-winner mode, picking a fight with a company that did nothing more than lightly criticize his agenda. Which, as Ellis and Klein correctly say, it has every right to do.

Which raises the question: Does DeSantis actually want to end Disney’s special improvement district or is this all a sort of kabuki?

Some righties who are trying to avoid confronting the ugliness of banana Republicanism have lunged at the latter theory, telling themselves that this is all a big show and that DeSantis wouldn’t really retaliate against a critic. Disney won’t lose its district immediately after the bill becomes law, after all; the statute doesn’t take effect until mid-2023, giving the company and DeSantis plenty of time to make a deal in which he quietly agrees to repeal the law in return for some sort of face-saving concession by Disney.

Assuming, that is, that the law isn’t struck down before next summer. DeSantis and other Republican officials have done everything short of renting a billboard to make clear that they’re trying to punish Disney for having the wrong political opinion.

Which brings us to back to what I said up above about why he and his party might be looking for ways to make this bill go away. If you can spare the time, I recommend this deep dive by Florida resident Sarah Rumpf into the financial consequences of ending Disney’s improvement district and returning jurisdiction to the neighboring counties. It’s going to be far more expensive for Floridians than it is for Disney.

Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph (D) launched a messaging crusade Wednesday denouncing the bill, pointing out that repealing RCID would result in the counties assuming all of its assets and liabilities. That means that Orange and Osceola would be on the hook for Disney’s $2 billion bond debt, which figures out to an additional tax bill for each county taxpayer estimated to be between $2,200 and $2,800 per family of four.

That’s the tip of the iceberg. Orange and Osceola counties would also need to hire various civil servants to staff the Reedy Creek territory that’ll soon be under their jurisdiction. The obvious move would be to hire Disney’s current staffers, but those people get paid well. It’ll cost the two counties a bundle to pay them. On top of that, the $100+ million that Disney currently pays to Reedy Creek to maintain services will evaporate under the laws of the current improvement district instead of going to Orange and Osceola to help defray their new costs. There would also be a mountain of lawsuits to come, Rumpf notes, dealing with matters as diverse as property rights to equal protection to the First Amendment to procedural suits challenging the way the bill was passed. For instance, a state law says that a special improvement district can’t be dissolved without the consent of the district’s voting landowners. Is Disney going to vote to dissolve its own district?

All of which raises the question: Did DeSantis go through with this because he expects to lose in court? Does he want to lose, hoping that he gets bailed out from the consequences of his most cynical “he fights!” grandstanding yet? Maybe. Rumpf is also toying with the possibility. Putting on a big pageant for Republican populists and then having a court save him from the terrible fiscal repercussions by finding the new law unconstitutional for like six different reasons would be a textbook demonstration of what it means to be a Republican in 2022.

I’ll leave you with this. I don’t know that anything else needs to be said.