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GOP senators support DeSantis' migrant flights plan

Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, criticized a bill that could lead to more state-funded migrant flights.
Colin Hackley
/
News Service of Florida
Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, criticized a bill that could lead to more state-funded migrant flights.

The Florida Senate will likely take up a plan that would bolster Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to send migrants to “sanctuary” cities and states, as Republicans and Democrats battle over the issue.

The Republican-controlled Senate Fiscal Policy Committee on Tuesday voted 14-6 to approve the plan (SB 6-B), teeing it up to go to the full Senate.

GOP lawmakers said the state needs to take action to curb undocumented immigrants coming to Florida because of failed federal border policies. DeSantis, who is a potential 2024 presidential candidate, frequently criticizes the federal government on the issue.

“If the federal government was doing their job in securing our border, we would not have to be addressing this issue in Florida,” Senate Rules Chairwoman Debbie Mayfield, R-Indialantic, said. “To me, it’s just that simple.”

But Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, pointed to the DeSantis administration’s controversial flights of about 50 migrants from Texas to Massachusetts in September. He said “what the governor’s office did was dead wrong.”

“What we’re doing right now is carrying the water for the governor, knowing that what he did was wrong,” Jones said. “And you all (Republicans) are holding your nose to vote for this and saying that it’s right.”

A short time later, Mayfield replied, “I am not holding my nose to vote on anything. I think this bill has been thoughtfully put together.”

The Senate committee vote came on the second day of a special legislative session called to address the migrants-transportation issue and a handful of other bills. The House Appropriations Committee on Monday approved an identical migrants-transportation (HB 5B), which is scheduled to be heard Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee.

Lawmakers last year included $12 million in the state 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 drew national attention when it 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 an “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.

The money could be used to transport migrants who are in Florida or other states to sanctuary cities and states. Senate sponsor Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said it would be a voluntary program for migrants who otherwise might end up in Florida.

“It’s not limited to the ones that have arrived to Florida, that have touched base in Florida,” Ingoglia said. “It also can be in other areas where they have been processed where the intent is to come to Florida.”

But Democrats and other critics said the state could use the $10 million for better purposes and questioned how it would be determined that migrants voluntarily agreed to be transported.

Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, said the country needs a comprehensive immigration plan.

“This is a potshot — $10 million to fly a few plane loads of people around the country? It doesn’t accomplish anything,” Templin told the Senate committee.

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