Disney CEO Bob Iger Blasts DeSantis Over Florida Battle: ‘This Is Plainly a Matter of Retaliation’

“We are merely exercising our right to free speech,” the chief executive said during the company’s quarterly earnings call Wednesday

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The gloves are off, when it comes to the ongoing brouhaha between Disney CEO Bob Iger and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, which has reached a crescendo with Disney suing the governor last month and the governor suing back.

“This is about one thing and one thing only and that’s retaliating against us for taking a position about pending legislation,” Iger said during its quarterly earnings call Wednesay. “And we believe that in taking that position, we are merely exercising our right to free speech. This is not about special privileges or a level playing field or Disney in any way using its leverage around the state of Florida.”

This all started last year, when former CEO Bob Chapek made a comment decrying DeSantis’ so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill after he initially refused to remark on the controversial bill. Outcry from Disney employees (known as “cast members” in the company’s parlance) forced Chapek to finally release a statement, which DeSantis took as the opening salvo to an incredibly lengthy and expensive battle.

This ultimately led to, earlier this year, DeSantis dissolving the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special tax district that allowed Disney to control the land where the Walt Disney World resort sits, just outside of Orlando, Florida. Skirmishes followed, which led Disney to file a lawsuit against DeSantis and the new board, known as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

“Since there’s been a lot said about special districts and the arrangement that we had, I want to set the record straight on that too,” Iger said. “There are about 2000 special districts in Florida. And most were established to foster investment and development. We were one of them. It basically made it easier for us and others, by the way, to do business in Florida. And we built a business that employs, as we’ve said before, over 75,000 people and attracts tens of millions of people to the state… While it’s easy to say that the Reedy Creek special district that was established for us over 50 years ago benefited us, it’s misleading to not also consider how much Disney benefited the state of Florida.”

Iger cited the Daytona Speedway and the Villages, a “prominent retirement community,” as some other examples of special tax districts. The initial agreement for Reedy Creek was established in the late 1960s, partially as a way to woo Walt Disney away from building a ski resort in California called Mineral King.

The Disney CEO argued that if DeSantis is going after Disney, then he should probably attack those other special districts as well.

“There’s also a false narrative that we’ve been fighting to protect tax breaks as part of this. But in fact, we’re the largest taxpayer in Central Florida paying over $1.1 billion in state and local taxes last year alone and we pay more taxes, specifically more real estate taxes as a result of that special districts,” Iger said. “And we all know there was no concerted effort to do anything to dismantle what was once called Reedy Creek special district until we spoke out on the legislation. This is plainly a matter of retaliation while the rest of the Florida special districts continue operating basically, as they were.”

While Wall Street in particular is interested in how this kerfuffle will impact the parks and, obviously, the stock price, Iger said that the company wants to maintain what it’s always been doing in Central Florida — for the past 50-plus years now.

“It’s also important for us to say our primary goal has always been to be able to continue to do exactly what we’ve been doing there, which is investing in Florida. We’re proud of the tourism industry that we created. And we want to continue delivering the best possible experience for guests going forward,” Iger said.

He continued, “We never wanted and we certainly never expected to be in a position of having to defend our business interests in federal court, particularly having such a terrific relationship with the state as we’ve had for more than 50 years. And as I mentioned on our shareholder call, we have a huge opportunity to continue to invest in Florida. I noted that our plans were to invest $17 billion over the next 10 years, which is what the state should want us to do. We operate responsibly. We pay our fair share of taxes. We employ thousands of people and by the way, we pay them above the minimum wage substantially above the minimum wage dictated by the state of Florida. We also provide them with great benefits and free education.”

Iger then finished his comment by letting loose one final, poison-tipped arrow: “I’m going to finish what was obviously kind of a long answer by asking one question: Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people, and pay more taxes, or not? Thanks.”