Sarah Rumpf has a copy of the complaint, which strikes my admittedly untrained eye as amateurish in some respects. For instance, instead of citing to relevant language in state statutes and official documents like the bonds issued by the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the complaint cites a story from a newspaper that quotes that language. The punctuation in some places is … spotty. And at one point the plaintiffs ask the court to “repeal” the new law abolishing the RCID, a word I’ve never heard used in a judicial proceeding. Legislatures repeal laws; courts enjoin them.
Maybe “repeal” is a term of art in Florida practice?
Anyway, the first of doubtless many lawsuits to come has officially begun. If you’re coming to this story late and need to acquaint yourself with the legal issues, start here. DeSantis and the legislature abolished Disney’s special district, Reedy Creek, without regard for the fact that there’s a huge amount of municipal debt outstanding. The state of Florida pledged to creditors that it wouldn’t “alter” the district until they were all paid off. That pledge has now been broken. With RCID abolished, the district’s debt will now fall on taxpayers in Orange and Osceola counties instead.
They’re not happy about it.
The lawsuit cites media reports featuring experts and political officials who say RCID’s $1 billion to $2 billion in bond debt will have to be absorbed by local governments, along with the cost to maintain utilities, infrastructure and other services that the RCID provides the area. That could mean higher taxes for county residents, without the approval of those residents, which the suit alleges is a violation of Florida’s taxpayer bill of rights.
The suit also points to media reports that the Republican-majority legislature and the governor passed this bill in retribution for Disney’s condemnation of the “Parental Rights in Education Law,” which critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
“It is without question that defendant Governor DeSantis intended to punish Disney for a 1st Amendment protected ground of free speech. Defendant’s violation of Disney’s 1st Amendment rights, directly resulted in a violation of plaintiffs’ 14th Amendment rights to due process of law,” the lawsuit states.
I’ll defer to legal eagles on whether private citizens can assert (or need to assert) Disney’s First Amendment rights in a claim alleging a violation of their own federal due process rights. The thrust of the complaint, however, is simply that residents in Orange and Osceola are implicit parties to the dispute between DeSantis and Disney because they’ve benefited financially in the past from Reedy Creek being able to run its own shop. Now that RCID is headed for dissolution, the district’s liabilities are falling on the heads of people who had nothing to do with — and no power to affect — the initial decision by Disney to issue municipal debt in such a steep amount. Which seems grossly unfair.
Even DeSantis reportedly thinks so. According to Democratic state legislators, there’s a plan in the works in Tallahassee to shift RCID’s debt off of the backs of Orange and Osceola — and onto the backs of Florida taxpayers writ large.
“The governor will establish a new district, that’s our latest word, under the general purpose government controlled by the governor with appointments by the governor,” Stewart said. “Therefore the debt will be paid, if this were the case, by the state of Florida, for over a billion dollars.”
It was not explained how that would work, or whether that would still leave Orange and Osceola counties on the hook for any part of the RCID’s finances or maintaining the district’s services.
The reason there are no details on how that would work is because DeSantis is winging it. There was obviously no plan for how to deal with RCID’s debt in the rush to score some culture-war points by rescinding their special district. If there were, that plan would have been part of the new law nuking RCID. They’re scrambling now to find some way to eat the debt in the least painful way possible. They could just admit they made a mistake and un-nuke Reedy Creek, but backing down from a culture-war fight in the Trump era isn’t permitted even if seeing it through is destined to be messy, expensive, counterproductive, and futile.
Randy Fine, one of DeSantis’s allies in the state legislature, speculated that a new and improved Reedy Creek could be created that would service the debt on the outstanding bonds but would also “withhold other powers the district currently has such as the ability to issue additional debt backed by a promise of repayment in state law.” Would that fly legally, though? If the key problem with the debt right now is the state’s pledge not to “alter” Reedy Creek until its bonds are paid off, I’m not sure how, ah, altering Reedy Creek again would solve it.
The lawsuit everyone is waiting for is Disney’s but we may be waiting a long time. Remember that they’re allegedly strategizing for ways to let DeSantis “take the L” here while saving face, knowing that he’d rather go to court and go down fighting in order to impress Republican voters than admit error. Disney cares about the time, expense, and consumer goodwill that a protracted court fight might cost it. DeSantis doesn’t care because, unlike Disney, he doesn’t have to pay the lawyers on his side out of his own pocket. He’s willing to fight this forever, I’m sure, no matter how unlikely victory may be. Unless, that is, Disney hands him some sort of off-ramp in which he can declare victory while quietly restoring Reedy Creek.
He’s going to be reelected either way, but here’s his likely opponent trying to squeeze a little political juice out of this mess.