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News brief: Russian attacks, Marjorie Taylor Green hearing, Florida Vs. Disney

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden says, we will speak softly and carry a large Javelin.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yeah, he's playing off of a line by Theodore Roosevelt - speak softly and carry a big stick. Biden made the remark while discussing $800 million in weapons shipments to Ukraine. Some of the weapons may arrive this weekend, as Ukrainians await a Russian offensive.

INSKEEP: And, of course, Javelins are missiles that can be used to destroy tanks. One of our correspondents has been watching civilians get out of the way of that possible assault. NPR's Brian Mann is in Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine. Hi there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's it like where you are?

MANN: Boy, things are tense today. We spoke to several military sources here this morning who say Russian ground troops are now active about 15 miles from the city. When we arrived, we found a fleet of city buses lined up in the center of Mykolaiv surrounded by crowds of people with suitcases and garbage bags full of clothes, many of them carrying children and pushing strollers.

IRYNA MATVIYISHYN: They're evacuating children and women and elderly people.

MANN: That's Iryna Matviyishyn, a Ukrainian journalist and translator who's working with me here, Steve, for NPR. And together, we spoke with a woman named Ina who was leaving her home in Mykolaiv with her teenage daughter Polina. They were carrying their little dog. Like a lot of people here, Ina said she's afraid Mykolaiv could turn into another Mariupol, a war zone crowded with civilians.

MATVIYISHYN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

INA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: "I have a small kid, and to save her life, I have to leave to go to Odesa," she told us. So while these people flee, the battle for Mykolaiv is considered to be crucial here in the south. If this city does fall, Russians would be positioned to threaten Odesa, which is, of course, Ukraine's major port on the Black Sea. And that's also a place where a lot of refugees are now staying.

INSKEEP: Brian, I'm interested to hear you say people don't want to be trapped in the city where you are because they don't want it to be like another Mariupol, with a lot of civilians in the crossfire. We have evidence or we're hearing stories of mass graves in Mariupol. What is the evidence?

MANN: Yeah, there are new satellite images that appear to show mass graves on the outskirts of that city. NPR hasn't been able to independently confirm exactly what's happened there, but again, it's clearly troubling. And meanwhile, we have Vladimir Putin publicly calling off the assault on the remaining Ukrainian fighters, but I have to say, there are reports that heavy shelling of those positions does continue.

INSKEEP: Yeah, Russia has not said it will stop the offensive in Mariupol, just that they're not going to go in directly into that steel plant where Ukrainians are holding out. What are Ukrainians saying about this new supply of weapons from the United States?

MANN: You know, over and over, I hear gratitude from soldiers for Western aid but also an appeal for more. Some of the Ukrainian soldiers I talked to here today say they still lack basic supplies, you know, ammunition and other essentials. And top Ukrainian officials say what they really need are those heavier weapons, like the artillery that's on its way. They also want tanks and aircraft.

INSKEEP: Which is something that the United States would conceivably have. Is this enough to make a difference, though?

MANN: You know, so far, Ukrainians have held the line as Russian bombardments and airstrikes and probes have escalated on the ground. Military officials in Ukraine and defense experts I've been speaking to say if Ukraine can quickly build up their firepower, it could make a difference as this Russian offensive escalates.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann. Thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Disney World may lose some of the magic in Florida.

MARTINEZ: The giant theme park is a little like its own country and even has its own government under Florida law, but the Legislature has voted to strip Disney of its self-governing status. Lawmakers are considering taking away the company's tax benefits. Disney had criticized Governor Ron DeSantis over his legislation labeled Parental Rights in Education, which opponents have dubbed the Don't Say Gay law.

INSKEEP: Danielle Prieur of member station WMFE in Orlando is here to untangle this. Good morning.

DANIELLE PRIEUR, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so as someone who got to go to Disney World as a kid...

PRIEUR: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...I learned a little bit about this self-governing thing. But maybe not everybody knows this. Maybe not everybody's obsessed with Disney World. So what is Disney's special self-governing status?

PRIEUR: Yeah. So basically, it has its own little mini government in an area known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, and that's about a 25,000-acre area that includes all the theme parks and water parks and hotels and restaurants that we all love going to. And it controls everything in that area from water and policing and road maintenance to, you know, paying taxes and issuing bonds. So it has, really, complete autonomy, and that's allowed the company to expand over the years.

INSKEEP: Why would it be that after more than half a century, the Florida Legislature would decide this is the moment to get rid of that?

PRIEUR: Yeah. So basically, it goes back to a few weeks ago, if you remember the Parental Rights in Education or what opponents have called the Don't Say Gay law here in Florida, which will restrict some conversations around gender identity and sexual orientation in the younger grades. When that was kind of being debated, Disney CEO Bob Chapek strongly opposed it, and in response, our governor, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, basically introduced the idea, we need to dissolve this special district now. And then this week during the special session here in Florida, we saw the Republican-led Legislature really support him in that, and the bill to dissolve the district moved relatively easily through the Florida Senate and now through the Florida House. And so the measure is now on the governor's desk, and he is expected to approve it by May 6.

INSKEEP: But let's figure this out. So they're punishing Disney for an opinion. They dissolved this special governing status. But doesn't that special district bring in tax revenue to local authorities?

PRIEUR: It does. And so now the problem is there's this huge windfall and about $1 billion in debt that most experts say Orange County and Osceola County residents are going to have to make up for in their taxes. Steve, I was speaking with the Orange County tax collector Scott Randolph yesterday, and he said homeowners here could see property taxes jump by 20% to make up the difference, and even then, it probably wouldn't be enough to cover all the money that would be lost. And he's really concerned that that means businesses won't want to come to this area after they see what happened to Disney, and Disney might not bring those 2,000 high-paying jobs from California over here to Florida.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to get my brain around this. Does this mean Disney's taxes go down because they're being punished? I mean, I'm baffled.

PRIEUR: Well, basically, you know, what will happen - right? - is that they pay taxes right now on this district (laughter).

INSKEEP: OK.

PRIEUR: And so basically, the taxes now will be paid for by local residents...

INSKEEP: OK.

PRIEUR: ...Who already have some of the highest taxes in the country.

INSKEEP: Will visitors to Disney notice any change at all?

PRIEUR: They might because, obviously, Disney was in charge of ambulance services and fire services, so if, you know, someone has a heart attack or a car accident, now it's up to the county to figure out how to handle that and how to foot the bill. And also, Disney now will need approval before it expands on all of its wonderful theme parks, hotels, restaurants, new rides. There's a lot of red tape now involved.

INSKEEP: Danielle, thanks for the insights. Really appreciate it.

PRIEUR: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Danielle Prieur of member station WMFE in Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: A hearing in Atlanta today decides if Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia should be disqualified from office.

MARTINEZ: A group of voters allege that Greene helped facilitate the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, arguing that it makes her ineligible to be on the ballot this May.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: Just finished with our meetings here at the White House this afternoon. We got a - had a great planning session for our January 6 objection. We aren't going to let this election be stolen by Joe Biden and the Democrats.

MARTINEZ: That was a clip of Greene in December of 2020. Now, we know she's denounced the violent acts of the January 6 insurrection, but as you just heard there, she was in on organizing the Save America rally that day, which eventually led to that march on the Capitol.

INSKEEP: Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler is covering this story. Stephen, welcome back.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So what is the basis for which people have brought her into court in the first place?

FOWLER: So, Steve, a Georgia law allows voters to challenge candidates running for office. It has a special process and a special judge that gives recommendations to the secretary of state, who makes the final decision about who can be on the ballot. Now, it's typically used for residency challenges, and typically, the candidate themselves has to be the one to prove they're eligible. In this case, there's an administrative law judge that says the ones that are challenging Marjorie Taylor Greene have to prove she should be disqualified and prove why they claim she violated a section of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that bars people who have, quote, "engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the U.S."

INSKEEP: Well, a court proceeding like this, I suppose one goal is to throw the person off the ballot, but the other is to find facts. What is the objective here?

FOWLER: Well, this challenge, filed by a nonpartisan group called Free Speech for People, will aim to question Greene about things related to January 6, objections to the Electoral College results, statements she made calling it, our 1776 moment, and other things that they say helped to plan the insurrection. We've been told Congresswoman Greene will testify under oath. This is the first time we'll be hearing testimony from a Republican lawmaker about the Capitol insurrection. And these challengers hope to glean new information that could be disqualifying. Now, cynically, Steve, most everyone comes out a winner here. Democrats have been using Greene's extremist language to attack Republicans, and Greene gets to attack Democrats in the media, like she did on a far-right outlet earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREENE: And so this is a precedent - sets a very dangerous precedent. I cannot believe that I'm being forced to do this. I can't believe this judge has not thrown this case out and seen it for what it is, as nothing but a big, funded scam for the Democrats trying to control our elections.

FOWLER: Even former President Trump has weighed in, using the hearing as an opportunity to attack incumbent Republican Governor Brian Kemp.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's right. Trump was not happy with Kemp because Kemp told the truth about the 2020 election. Is it possible, though, that Greene could actually be thrown off the ballot?

FOWLER: Well, the short answer is no. A federal judge did rule that this complaint process could continue, but it'll be a high bar to meet to remove Greene. Also, remember; the final decision rests with the secretary of state. That's Brad Raffensperger, who's facing a Trump-backed primary challenge next month, too.

INSKEEP: Interesting times. Stephen, thanks so much.

FOWLER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.