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Disney CEO Iger rips DeSantis over anti-Florida retaliation

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Bob Iger, CEO, Disney, during CNBC interview, Feb. 9, 2023.

Randy Shropshire | CNBC

Bob Iger on Monday called Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ actions against The Walt Disney Co. retaliatory, “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.”

The feud between DeSantis and the company escalated earlier Monday, when the governor asked the state’s inspector general to determine whether the House of Mouse’s sly move to retain control over the outer limits of Orange and Osceola counties is legal – and whether any of the company’s executives were involved in the scheme.

During the company’s annual shareholder meeting Monday, Disney CEO Iger addressed investor inquiries about the ongoing dispute between the company and Florida legislators. He noted that Disney has more than 75,000 employees in the state, and has created thousands of indirect jobs, as well as brings around 50 million visitors to Florida every year and is the state’s largest taxpayer

“A year ago, the company took a position on pending Florida legislation,” Iger said, apparently referring to what critics called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. “And while the company may have not handled the position that it took very well, a company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do.”

He added: “The governor got very angry about the position Disney took and seems like he’s decided to retaliate against us, including the naming of a new board to oversee the property and the business. In effect, to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right. And that just seems really wrong to me.”

Iger said Disney plans to spend more than $17 billion in investments at Walt Disney World over the next decade, which would create around 13,000 jobs at the company and generate even more taxes for Florida.

“Our point on this is that any action that supports those efforts simply to retaliate for a position the company took sounds not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida,” he said. “And I’ll just leave it at that.”

Last week, DeSantis’ newly appointed board of the Reedy Creek district, now named the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, revealed that the previous Disney-allied board signed a long-lasting agreement that drastically limits the control that can be exercised over the company and its district.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during ‘The Florida Blueprint’ event on Long Island, New York, United States on April 1, 2023. Ron DeSantis made comments on the Grand Jury’s indictment of Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States in Manhattan, New York. 

Kyle Mazza | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The agreement was signed on Feb. 8, the day before the Florida House voted to put DeSantis in charge. DeSantis replaced all of the Disney-allied board members with five Republicans on Feb. 27. It was only then that Disney’s new binding agreement was discovered.

The agreement includes a clause that dates back to 1692 in Britain. The “Declaration shall continue in effect until 21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, King of England, living as of the date of this declaration,” the document said.

The governor’s letter calls the board’s agreement an attempt to “usurp the authority of the CFTOD board” and “nullify the recently passed legislation, undercut Florida’s legislative process, and defy the will of Floridians.”

He said at the agreement also has “legal infirmities” including inadequate notice, improper delegation of authority and ethical violations.

Disney, however, has said that all of the board’s maneuvers were completely legal — the agreement was discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums, in compliance with Florida’s Sunshine law.

The development in DeSantis’ conflict with Disney marks just the latest move in one of several partisan battles being waged by the Republican governor.

DeSantis is widely believed to be laying the groundwork to launch a 2024 presidential campaign. That move is expected to come not long after the current Florida legislative session ends in early May. Polls show that DeSantis is the most competitive of the potential opponents for former President Donald Trump in a GOP primary.

The Florida governor took aim at Disney after the company publicly balked at Florida’s HB 1557 law early last year. HB 1557, which critics called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, limits early education teachings on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Republican state Rep. Randy Fine told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” last April that the bill dissolving Reedy Creek wasn’t retaliatory, but then said “when Disney kicked the hornet’s nest, we looked at special districts.”

Until recently, there had been no major public discussion about dissolving Disney’s long-established special district, which it’s occupied for 55 years, leading DeSantis’ critics to question its timing and the speed at which the governor acted against the company.

The fight between DeSantis and Disney shows no signs of slowing down. During a book tour stop in Georgia last week, DeSantis told attendees “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

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