Florida Senate signs off on immigration & election bills

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Sign outside early vote location in West Tampa. By Seán Kinane / WMNF News (October 2012).

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Backing priorities of Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Senate on Wednesday passed bills that could help send migrants to “sanctuary” cities and states and bolster efforts to prosecute alleged election fraud.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 27-12 along party lines to pass both bills, sending them to the House. The votes came on the third day of a special legislative session.

Democrats fiercely criticized the migrant relocation bill (SB 6-B), which would create an “Unauthorized Alien Transport Program.” Under the program, $10 million would be available to transport migrants from Florida and other states to sanctuary areas.

The bill came after the DeSantis administration sparked a national controversy in September by flying about 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. It also came as DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, and other Republicans frequently blast federal immigration policies.

“If the federal government is going to fail over and over and over again, then we have a duty to act here in the state of Florida and act as senators,” Sen. Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, said.

But Democrats described the bill as a political ploy, with Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, saying senators were “just going to vote for it because the governor wants it.”

“This is not a game. These are not aliens,” Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, said. “These are individuals like you and I who are seeking to leave places that aren’t safe for them and their families. And we are treating them like animals.”

Lawmakers last year included $12 million in the budget for the Florida 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 fly 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 Senate staff analysis said $1.565 million had been spent as of Jan. 31, leaving a balance of $10.435 million from the original $12 million.

The bill, at least in part, would address issues raised in a pending lawsuit filed by Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood. The lawsuit contends that part of the budget used to pay for the flights violated the Florida Constitution because it improperly created a new program and changed laws about issues such as contracting.

Among other things, the bill 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.

Bill sponsor Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said the program would transport migrants who voluntarily want to go to sanctuary cities and states. He said it would help prevent undocumented immigrants from coming to Florida and described the flow of people crossing the nation’s borders as a “crisis.”

But Democrats questioned why Florida would spend $10 million on transporting migrants from other states.

“Fiscal conservative, small government, this is not,” Polsky said.

The bill on election-fraud prosecutions is rooted in the high-profile arrests in August of 20 people on allegations that they cast ballots while being ineligible to vote. DeSantis heralded the arrests as part of an effort to crack down on fraud.

The Office of Statewide Prosecutor charged the defendants, who were alleged to be ineligible because of previous felony convictions. But judges dismissed three of the cases because they said the statewide prosecutor did not have jurisdiction to bring the charges. The judges ruled that the alleged crimes each occurred in only one judicial circuit, rather than multiple judicial circuits as required by a law about the statewide prosecutor’s jurisdiction.

The bill would allow the statewide prosecutor to investigate election cases that have “affected” two or more judicial circuits, an easier requirement to meet than the current standard.

For example, bill sponsor Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, said voters casting ballots in statewide races would affect two or more judicial circuits, allowing jurisdiction by the statewide prosecutor.

“Any fraudulent vote in a statewide election waters down every vote in a statewide election,” Martin said.

But Sen. Tracie Davis, a Jacksonville Democrat who is a former Duval County elections official, questioned whether lawmakers were “lowering the bar” to make it easier for the statewide prosecutor to have jurisdiction. Also, she said elections supervisors have processes to prevent fraud.

“It’s as if you don’t hear your 67 supervisors of elections,” Davis said to senators.

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