Florida Senate ready to help DeSantis stave off court challenges
TALLAHASSEE – A Senate panel raced ahead with legislation that could help Gov. Ron DeSantis stave off courtroom challenges to divisive, high-profile moves he made last year, cracking down on voters who erroneously cast illegal ballots and also sending dozens of undocumented migrants from Texas to blue state Massachusetts.
In party-line votes, the Republican-dominated Fiscal Policy Committee advanced changes Tuesday that could shield DeSantis in lingering legal battles that threaten to cloud his expected candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination, which could be announced soon.
One measure fully pays at least $1.5 million in costs Florida incurred last fall when DeSantis ordered state contractors to pluck 50 asylum-seeking Venezuelans from Texas and send them to Martha’s Vineyard off Massachusetts.
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The governor’s actions followed similar relocations to New York City and Washington, D.C., by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican, whose border state has been inundated with migrants.
DeSantis found migrants in Texas
DeSantis, though, went to Texas to find the Venezuelans he flew to the island. And the legislation (SB 6B) approved Tuesday creates a new $10 million relocation program that would authorize what Democratic opponents derided as the governor’s “hunting” of undocumented migrants anywhere in the U.S.
DeSantis is facing several lawsuits over his use of last year’s $12 million relocation program, which was intended to be used solely for transporting migrants out of Florida.
“What we’re doing right now is carrying the water for the governor knowing that what he did was wrong,” said Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. “And you all are holding your nose to vote for this, and saying that it’s right.”
“This is wrong,” he added. “It’s not becoming of us as a state, it is not becoming of us as human beings. And it's definitely not becoming of our resources and how we’re about to spend taxpayers’ dollars.”
Stand up to Biden, Republican senator says
But the sponsor of the measure, Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, praised empowering the state to stand up to President Joe Biden and the federal government for a failed immigration system.
“The state of Florida is currently in a state of emergency because of the ineptness and the incompetence of the federal government when it comes to immigration policy,” Ingoglia said. “In fact, I would say someone should declare the federal government, itself, its own disaster area.”
Ingoglia defended the bill as allowing for companies contracted by Florida to relocate migrants from anywhere in the U.S. to states like New York, California and Massachusetts, which he said have more welcoming sanctuary policies.
He also said that using Florida taxpayer money to accomplish these moves was worthwhile.
“Floridians are (already) asked to foot the bill and pay the consequences,” for the nation’s immigration woes, Ingoglia said.
House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, called the Legislature into special session over the next two weeks to tackle several issues.
Included are revamps of the migrant relocation program and elections security law, which has been troubled in court, and a measure that also overhauls a bill approved last year that is designed to punish Walt Disney Co., for its opposition to DeSantis’ parental rights law, which critics labeled “Don’t Say Gay.”
Disney punishment still to come
The Disney legislation, which renames the five-member Reedy Creek Improvement District that oversees theme park’s Central Florida property and allows DeSantis to appoint its members, is set for its first hearing Wednesday in the House State Affairs Committee.
The Senate panel Tuesday also approved a reworked version of legislation from last year that led to the arrest of 20 people charged with voter fraud for illegally voting in the 2020 election. Most were Black, from Democratic-leaning counties and had felony convictions, but also had been assured by elections officials that they were eligible to vote.
DeSantis announced the arrests with fanfare shortly before last August’s statewide primaries.
Since then, the first three cases in court have been dismissed on jurisdictional grounds by judges who questioned the authority of the Office of Statewide Prosecution in bringing the charges.
The new legislation (SB 4B) is intended to expand the office’s role and authorize such arrests, although it’s uncertain how the change will affect the status of those already charged.
Florida’s Amendment 4, approved by almost 65% of voters in 2018, was intended to make it easier for felons to regain voter rights. But there is no statewide database for anyone to determine easily whether a felon has paid all their fees, fines, costs and restitution ordered by a court.
Those arrested last summer had been issued voter cards by elections officials. But that was downplayed by supporters Tuesday.
“If you do break the law, you will be held accountable for the law,” said Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, sponsor of the measure.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida Senate committee approves election, migrant bills for DeSantis