Three days after Disney sued DeSantis, lawmakers tripled the governor's budget for lawyers
The DeSantis-dominated Florida Legislature gave the governor $6 million in taxpayer money that could help sustain his war on Mickey Mouse.
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Three days after the Walt Disney Co. sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis accusing him of unconstitutionally punishing the company for opposing his political agenda, Florida lawmakers quietly tripled DeSantis’ taxpayer-funded litigation budget.
Republican leaders in the Florida Legislature agreed to give the governor $6 million to spend on lawyers — up from $1.6 million last year — without any substantive public discussion. The decision was made during a pair of lightning-quick, last-minute budget meetings, held on the weekend before lawmakers concluded their 2023 legislative session.
Six million dollars is more than lawmakers had included in any of their earlier public drafts of the state budget. It was more even than DeSantis himself had asked for; records show the governor requested $4 million for lawyers in the days leading up to the Legislature’s 60-day session, which began March 7 and ended on Friday.
It’s not clear what prompted legislative leaders to buttress the governor’s legal budget. Spokespeople for the House, Senate and Governor’s Office all declined to answer detailed questions about the decision.
But the sudden bump came just 72 hours after Disney sued DeSantis and others in federal court, accusing the governor of orchestrating “a targeted campaign of government retaliation” against the company over the past year.
The $6 million — enough money to pave 15 miles of new pedestrian and bicycle trails — illustrates the escalating costs of DeSantis’ increasingly ham-handed battle with Disney.
It began in March 2022, when Disney spoke out publicly against a DeSantis-backed education law that makes it harder for teachers to talk to students about sexual orientation or gender identity.
The company also announced it would stop making contributions to politicians in Florida. That included DeSantis, who had personally raised more than $100,000 from Disney — and whose office had worked very closely with Disney lobbyists, helping the company secure tax breaks and other policy favors.
DeSantis responded by ordering the Florida Legislature to pass a bill dissolving Disney’s Reedy Creek Improvement District, the company-controlled municipal government that has overseen Walt Disney World’s land holdings in central Florida since 1967.
But then local officials warned that simply doing away with Reedy Creek could leave Orlando-area taxpayers on the hook for more than $1 billion in debt. So DeSantis instructed the Legislature to pass another bill preserving Reedy Creek — but renaming the district and putting it under control of a board handpicked by DeSantis himself.
But then Disney signed a contract with Reedy Creek that locked in long-term development rights and restrictions just before DeSantis’ new appointees took control. So the governor made the Legislature pass a third bill during the just-concluded legislative session that would allow his appointees to retroactively cancel Disney’s contract. DeSantis signed that bill into law hours after lawmakers gaveled the 2023 session to a close.
The governor’s behavior has grown more erratic as the battle has dragged on. DeSantis recently held a televised press conference in which he suggested Florida could build a state prison at Disney World.
What’s more, the governor also had the Legislature pass yet another piece of legislation that will give his administration more power to regulate the Disney World monorail. Even the lawmakers assigned to carry the bill could barely defend it; when Rep. Shane Abbott (R-DeFuniak Springs) was asked why the monorail legislation was necessary, he cited an accident that happened 14 years ago.
It might all be funny — if it weren’t so expensive for taxpayers. Disney has already added the latest retaliatory legislation to its lawsuit against the governor.
And the $6 million that lawmakers are giving directly to DeSantis is just a fraction of the money Florida taxpayers will spend over the next year defending constitutionally questionable legislation and executive actions — from laws that restrict everything from public protests to corporate training programs to DeSantis’ removal of an independently elected local prosecutor from office because of ideological differences.
The new state budget includes $2 million for the DeSantis-appointed Board of Governors to defend laws imposing new controls on the state’s public universities and colleges. It includes $2.8 million for DeSantis’ Department of State to defend laws erecting more barriers to voting and voter registration. And it includes $5 million for lawsuits related to Covid-19 vaccine disputes.
That’s $15.8 million in taxpayer money to spend on outside lawyers — some of whom DeSantis pays $675 an hour. And it’s in on top of at least $16.7 million that the DeSantis administration has already spent, according to the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, most of which has been paid to a handful of politically plugged-in law firms.
Republican leaders in the Legislature say they will spend whatever it takes to defend DeSantis. “We want the governor to be in a comfortable position to be able to speak his mind, and we’re going to support him on those things,” Sen. Doug Broxson (R-Pensacola), the lead budget-writer in the Florida Senate, told reporters last week.
Maybe this doesn’t sound like much money in the context of a $117 billion state budget. But it’s important to consider what DeSantis and the Legislature could be doing with this money instead.
Here’s just one example: The same state budget that sets aside $15.8 million for litigation also leaves a $10.2 million funding shortfall for the state’s arts and cultural programs.
Before the session began, a state-appointed council that evaluates and ranks grant proposals submitted by arts groups, museums, and other cultural organizations recommended the Legislature fund $69.3 million worth of projects across Florida this year.
But lawmakers only agreed to spend $59.1 million.
So DeSantis gets money that could sustain his war on Mickey Mouse. But the Titusville Arts League, the tag! Children’s Museum in St. Augustine, the Crealde School of Art in Orlando, and the Lao Arts and Cultural Foundation in St. Petersburg must all go without.