Florida lawmakers support a bill on migrant flights

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Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Trump Rally attendees.
Ron DeSantis speaks to Trump rally attendees. WMNF (October 2020).

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Nearly five months after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration sparked controversy by flying about 50 migrants from Texas to Massachusetts, Florida House members Monday started moving forward with a proposal that could help set the stage for more flights.

The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee voted along party lines to approve a bill (HB 5B) that would create the “Unauthorized Alien Transport Program” at the state Division of Emergency Management and shift $10 million to fund it.

The bill would address issues that led to a legal challenge after the September flights, including making clear that $1.565 million already spent by the DeSantis administration is “deemed approved.”

Republican supporters of the bill blasted the Biden administration’s handling of border issues and said they are trying to curb undocumented immigrants coming into Florida. They said the measure is aimed at transporting migrants to “sanctuary” areas of the country.

“In essence, a signal has been sent that the border is open and that folks are welcome. … What I have seen is an abject failure of the Biden administration to do anything with the migrant surge we’re seeing at the Southern border,” bill sponsor John Snyder, R-Stuart said.

But Democrats said Florida should not spend money to move migrants from other states and that the bill does not include accountability for how the money would be used.

“This should not be the priority of the state of Florida. It just should not be,” Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, said. “This feels very stunt-like. It feels very political. It does not feel like it’s solving a problem.”

Lawmakers last year included $12 million in the state budget for the Department of Transportation to carry out a “program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.” The DeSantis administration used $615,000 of that money to pay Vertol Systems Company, Inc. to transport two planeloads of migrants on Sept. 14 from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, with a stop in the Northwest Florida community of Crestview.

While the state spent $615,000 on the September flights, four additional Vertol purchase orders of $950,000 each are listed on a state contracting website for “relocation services.” A House staff analysis Monday said that $1.565 million had been spent as of Jan. 31.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, filed a constitutional challenge after the flights drew national attention.

The lawsuit, which remains pending in Leon County circuit court, deals with the interplay of the state budget and substantive laws. The lawsuit contends that part of the budget used to pay for the flights violated the Florida Constitution because it created a new program and changed laws about issues such as contracting.

The new bill, which cleared the House Appropriations Committee on the first day of a special legislative session, would address issues in Pizzo’s lawsuit.

As an example, it would repeal the part of the budget that was used as a basis for the flights and would create the Unauthorized Alien Transport Program in law. Also, the remaining money provided in the budget would be funneled back to state coffers, and $10 million would be allocated to the newly created program — effectively swapping out money.

Pizzo said Monday he thinks the bill is designed to scuttle the lawsuit.

“Of course, they’re trying to make it moot,” Pizzo told reporters.

DeSantis, who is widely mentioned as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, frequently criticizes the Biden administration over immigration issues. In addition to the Pizzo case, the flights have drawn a constitutional challenge in federal court in Massachusetts.

The Senate Fiscal Policy Committee is scheduled Tuesday to take up the Senate version of Snyder’s bill (SB 6-B).

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