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DeSantis violated law with Martha’s Vineyard flights, Florida Democrats say

State lawmakers set aside $12 million this year for the Florida Department of Transportation “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.”
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Sep. 19|Updated Sep. 19

TALLAHASSEE — Democratic state lawmakers on Monday charged that Gov. Ron DeSantis violated state law when his administration used taxpayers dollars to fly migrants in Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, arguing that the actions exceeded the authority granted by the Legislature when it approved a program to relocate migrants from Florida.

In response, they are requesting that Republican legislative leaders object to and stop the DeSantis administration from continuing to use public funds in conflict with the legislative intent of the program.

“Anytime we have an executive or agency spending outside of the authority granted to them by the Legislature, that is something we should all take seriously and that’s regardless of party,” House Democratic Caucus Leader Designate Fentrice Driskell of Tampa said in an online news conference.

Under the state budget passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year, the Florida Department of Transportation could spend up to $12 million “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state” in a way that is consistent with federal law, according to Section 185 in the document.

DeSantis said at a news conference Friday that the state’s contractor went to Texas to try to identify people “that are trying to come to Florida, and then offering them free transportation to sanctuary jurisdictions, and so they went from Texas to Florida to Martha’s Vineyard in the flight.” A group of 48 migrants, most of them from Venezuela, were taken to Martha’s Vineyard last Wednesday. Some migrants have said they were misled and were falsely promised jobs on the other end of the trip.

Transporting migrants from Texas appears to conflict with the language passed in the state budget this year, House Democratic Caucus Leader Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood, said.

“No matter what, even if you voted for or against it, you have the right to be perturbed and rankled over the fact that the law was violated,” Jenne said.

The $12 million program was tucked in a $112 billion budget passed with near-unanimous support in the Legislature, with only three Democrats voting against it. It included spending items that Republican and Democrats liked and disliked.

“Nobody gets everything that they want in the budget, but what I can tell you is that when we vote for the budget, the vote certainly is to act in accordance with the law,” Driskell said. “A vote for the budget is not a carte blanche approval for the governor to do whatever he wants with that $12 million pool of money and for him to go beyond the scope of the law as it was intended.”

Driskell said she believes the governor “abused” his spending authority, in part, because she does not think the legislative intent allows the governor to send workers to Texas to find migrants and relocate them as part of a “political stunt.”

Taryn Fenske, communications director for the governor’s office, said the flights were authorized.

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”The funding to facilitate the relocation of illegal immigrants comes from interest accrued against the balance of the fiscal recovery fund awarded to the state — AKA Biden bucks,” Fenske said. “It got legislative approval, and many Florida Democrats voted for it.”

In a letter addressed to House Speaker Chris Sprowls and House Appropriations Chairperson Jay Trumbull, Driskell and Jenne pointed out that it appears some of the migrants were political refugees and may not meet the definition of “unauthorized alien” in accordance with federal statutes, rules and regulations.

Driskell said Democrats are trying to get more information on the status of those migrants to ensure the governor met the definition of “unauthorized alien” as outlined in the budget.

Procedurally, Democrats are asking to Legislative Budget Commission to find out what has happened, why it has happened and if it is going to continue happening, and to object to the DeSantis administration’s use of the money if indeed it did not follow the law.

The Times/Herald reached out to the Senate and House for comment on Thursday to ask whether leaders in each chamber believed the intent of the law was followed by the governor and his administration. They have not responded.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this story.

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