Florida budgets for more migrant flights in 2024

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By Stadratte via iStock for WMNF News.

Backroom Briefing: Keep an Eye on the Sky
Weekly political notes from The News Service of Florida
By Jim Turner ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — After major controversies about Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration flying migrants from Texas to Massachusetts and California, expect more flights during the first half of 2024.

Chris Spencer, DeSantis’ budget director, this week discussed a request for an additional $5 million for the migrant-flight program, telling lawmakers that some unspent money in the current-year budget will be used over the next six months.

“I’m not at liberty to talk about any flights that may or may not be happening, or operations that may or may not be happening, between now and the (June 30) end of the fiscal year,” Spencer said Tuesday. “But I do expect there to be more activity in the program before the end of the fiscal year.”

The Republican-dominated Legislature included $12 million for the program in the current year’s budget, which took effect July 1. About $10 million remains, Spencer said. The additional $5 million was requested in a proposed 2024-2025 budget that DeSantis unveiled last week.

“The funds are used specifically for the program around transporting unauthorized aliens out of the state of Florida or from other states to other states in the United States,” Spencer said.

Lawmakers this year put oversight of the program in the Division of Emergency Management. The program drew national attention — and a federal lawsuit — after a pair of flights in 2022 relocated a group of mostly Venezuelan refugees from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. The lawsuit remains pending in Massachusetts.

A second series of flights in June moved a group of Venezuelan and Colombian migrants from El Paso, Texas, to Sacramento, Calif.

House Democrats noted the litigation has added to the expense of the program.

DeSantis, who is running for president in 2024, has long criticized Biden administration border policies. The governor’s office has said the flight program is “voluntary” for migrants.

“This program, as established by law under the Division of Emergency Management, does have a very clear contract relationship with the contractors who have been awarded the contracts through the process with DEM in order to avoid as much exposure to risk as possible to the state,” Spencer said.

SAME OLD RON?

House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell doesn’t expect DeSantis to change his approach to governing, regardless of how he does in the Iowa presidential caucus, which will be held during the second week of Florida’s 2024 legislative session.

Speculation has swirled about how DeSantis would handle the job if he ultimately exits the presidential race. Former President Donald Trump has a large lead in Republican presidential polls.

Some people speculate DeSantis would show a heavier hand that would include taking aim at perceived enemies and non-supporters. Others speculate some Republicans would revolt if DeSantis leaves the presidential race, as he also is barred from seeking a third term as governor.

Driskell, D-Tampa, said Monday a loss in Iowa could “take a lot of the wind out of DeSantis’ sails” and later scoffed at his proposed budget, saying he “phoned” it in. But she also doesn’t expect the governor to change.

“It’s been on the minds of, I know, all of us in this building, both Republicans and Democrats, because we want to see what this session is going to bring,” Driskell said during a conference call. “Now, I would say that if past behavior is any indicator of future behavior, that this is a governor who still will have a veto pen. This is a governor who still has, I imagine, a clear-eyed view of how he wants to lead this state and is trying to sell this all across the nation.”

TIMING BONDS

DeSantis and the Cabinet next week will consider authorizing $381 million in bonds to pay for major renovations of Florida State University’s Doak Campbell Stadium.

Ben Watkins, director of the Florida Division of Bond Finance, also will seek flexibility to be able to take advantage of market conditions to cover other upgrades in the state university system.

“There’s been a lot of volatility in the fixed income markets primarily because of the market anticipating what the Fed is or is not going to do. And, as you all know, all of the economists were uniformly incorrect in their call for a recession,” Watkins told aides to DeSantis and the Cabinet on Wednesday.

“So, as the marketplace anticipates what the Federal Reserve is going to do, interest rates are up and down,” Watkins continued. “So, let’s say over the last 60 days, interest rates have been at nearly the 10-year Treasury (rate) at 5 percent. And we were talking about, oh my God, interest rates are so high. They are higher than they’ve been in the last 25, 30 years. Well, they’re back down to about 4 percent. So that’s a pretty significant movement in our space over a relatively short period of time.”

Money from the Doak Campbell bonds would help remodel the west side of the football stadium with club, suite and lounge upgrades in exchange for 11,000 fewer seats.

SOCIAL MEDIA POST OF THE WEEK: “You shouldn’t have to worry about the safety of the food you put on your kitchen table. I’m calling on @CommerceGov to investigate Communist China’s alleged practice of growing garlic in human feces. That doesn’t belong in any grocery store near you.” — U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., (@SenRickScott).

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