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Disney escalates legal battle against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a press conference at the American Police Hall of Fame & Museum in Titusville, on May 1, 2023.

Disney on Monday expanded its federal lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, accusing the Republican leader of doubling down on his “retribution campaign” against the company by signing legislation to void Disney’s development deals in Orlando.

Disney’s amended lawsuit also noted that Florida’s Republican-led legislature passed legislation targeting Walt Disney World’s monorail system last week.

“Governor DeSantis and his allies have no apparent intent to moderate their retaliatory campaign any time soon,” Disney wrote in its additions to the civil complaint it filed in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee last month.

DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the amended complaint.

Disney alleges that DeSantis began a war of retaliation against the company last year, after it publicly criticized the controversial Florida bill — dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics — that limits discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms.

The governor and his allies targeted Disney’s special tax district, formerly the Reedy Creek Improvement District, allowing the entertainment giant to effectively self-govern its Orlando parks’ operations for decades. The drawn-out feud spilled into the courts after the district’s new board of supervisors, hand-picked by DeSantis, voted to nullify development deals that Disney struck shortly before they replaced the old board.

The governor’s board members claimed the deals were unlawfully passed and undercut their power over the 25,000-acre area. But Disney says the contracts were crafted to help lock in its long-term development plans amid escalating tension with DeSantis and his allies.

On Friday, the final day of the state’s 2023 legislative session, DeSantis signed a bill that included language effectively targeting Disney’s development contracts. It precludes an independent special district “from complying with the terms of any development agreement” that is struck within three months before a law “modifying the manner of selecting members” of that special district’s governing body.

Republican State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia added that language to the bill days after warning Disney: “You are not going to win this fight. This Governor will.”

Democratic members of the state legislature have been quick to condemn the battle.

“The Governor’s inability to grasp basic economics, coupled with his punitive style, has created a bloated and protracted grudge match, which the taxpayers are bankrolling,” Jason Pizzo, a Democrat who represents the state’s 38th Senate district, told CNBC. “As the state’s executive, heading the party which has historically yielded to free market principles, and less regulation, this third legislative effort to injure a private company is antithetical to conservative governance.”

Pizzo lambasted DeSantis for using the state’s revenue on “battling iconic brands.”

“Regardless of how many times he shouts Florida is Free, these are the methods of a socialist tyrant, not a Republican wunderkind,” he said.

Linda Stewart, a Democrat representing Florida’s 13th Senate district and a staunch critic of DeSantis’ actions against Disney, called the feud between DeSantis and Disney “insane” and laid blame with her Republican counterparts.

“Every day it seems like there’s another way that they want to try to make things more difficult for Disney, but all they’re doing is costing taxpayers money to hire lawyers to go defend what they are doing,” Stewart told CNBC on Friday.

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