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    Sunday, September 24, 2023

    Federal COVID aid could have helped Florida pay for migrant flights

    An immigrant family makes their way to the bus transporting from St. Andrews in Edgartown, Mass., to Vineyard Haven and the ferry to Woods Hole, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took the playbook of a fellow Republican, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, to a new level by catching officials flat-footed in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., with two planeloads of Venezuelan migrants. On Friday, the migrants were being moved voluntarily to a military base on nearby Cape Cod, Mass. (Ron Schloerb/Cape Cod Times via AP)
    Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a news conference at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., Friday, Sept.16, 2022. (Nigel Cook/The Daytona Beach News-Journal via AP)
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    Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) appears to have turned to an unexpected funding source to help pay for his plans to fly migrants to liberal-leaning communities: the interest earned on his state's federal coronavirus aid.

    A little-noticed part of Florida's recent budget dedicated about $12 million to the relocation campaign, an escalating effort that saw the state send two planes filled with dozens of migrants - children included - to Martha's Vineyard, Mass., on Wednesday.

    "I got 12 million for us to use, and so we are going to use it," DeSantis said at a news conference Friday, telling reporters the goal is to "make sure that we exhaust all those funds."

    To set up the program, DeSantis took advantage of the fine print in the American Rescue Plan, a roughly $1.9 trillion stimulus law adopted by Congress at President Joe Biden's request last year. The measure, supported by Democrats over unanimous GOP opposition, included about $350 billion for cities and states to boost their economies and respond to the public health crisis.

    The funds came with few restrictions, but the U.S. government imposed virtually no rules on the interest generated on that money while it remained unspent. In Florida, the opening allowed local lawmakers to approve a spending blueprint that redirected money "from the interest earnings associated" with its federal stimulus allotment toward DeSantis's immigration policies, sparking a broad outcry and renewed calls for a federal investigation.

    The situation marked the latest instance in which federal coronavirus aid appeared to enable Republicans' immigration crackdowns - a far cry from what congressional lawmakers had envisioned when they reserved stimulus money for the states.

    Earlier this year, Texas officials took advantage of a separate, yet related, federal pandemic program to free up money for Operation Lone Star, an effort to police the U.S.-Mexican border. Texas similarly has sent migrants to Democratic-led communities, most recently dispatching two buses to the Naval Observatory - the Washington, D.C., home of Vice President Harris - on Thursday.

    The Washington Post revealed the full scope of the budgetary maneuvering in Texas as part of a year-long series, the COVID Money Trail, that tracks the roughly $5 trillion in federal aid adopted since the start of the pandemic. The initial report soon prompted a federal inspector general to probe the state's conduct.

    In Florida, Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, confirmed in a statement that the state sent two planes of migrants to Martha's Vineyard, adding that other states, including Massachusetts, New York and California, would "better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country by incentivizing illegal immigration."

    But the governor's office otherwise did not respond to multiple questions about the source of the funds or whether the $12 million in interest on COVID aid had been used for the flights to Martha's Vineyard. Instead, Fenske added that the legislature had appropriated money to implement the program "consistent with federal law."

    On Friday, Florida Rep. Charlie Crist - the Democratic nominee for governor - charged the money had in fact come from the roughly $12 million fund. He tweeted an image showing a $615,000 contract between Florida and an aviation company from for the "relocation program."

    Spokespeople for the Treasury Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation, which oversees the relocation money, also did not respond.

    The events this week marked the latest clash between DeSantis, a conservative firebrand with aspirations for the presidency in 2024, and the Biden administration. The Florida Republican previously has threatened to send migrants to the president's home state of Delaware.

    At times, the skirmishes have directly involved the nearly $9 billion Florida received in federal aid last year. The Sunshine State has been among the most aggressive in seeking to channel some federal money toward other, seemingly unrelated purposes. The budget DeSantis signed this year rerouted coronavirus stimulus funds to help finance a gas tax holiday in response to high fuel prices. Critics said the move ran afoul of federal law, which prohibits states from using the cash on tax cuts - a policy that Florida and its peers have repeatedly and successfully challenged in court cases nationwide.

    With immigration, the legality is murkier. Under the law, cities and states can use their allocations to mitigate the pandemic's economic impacts, help workers performing essential tasks, replace lost budget revenue and improve their local infrastructure. The categories are vast, opening the door at times for these governments to pursue a wide array of seemingly unrelated pet projects - including prisons, golf courses and others documented by The Washington Post.

    Adding to the complexity, the Florida budget specifically permitted the money to be used for the "transport of unauthorized aliens from this state." The flights to Martha's Vineyard, however, originated in Texas, though they did at one point stop in Crestview, Fla.

    Speaking to reporters Friday, DeSantis said that Florida sought to target migrants who were "most likely to come" into the state, choosing those individuals to reduce the "cost on communities" locally. He acknowledged Florida had "hired a contractor" and "done the flights," suggesting still more to come.

    Nevertheless, local experts and advocates still said this week that the funding approach broke with the spirit of the coronavirus rescue package. Alexis Tsoukalas, a policy analyst at the Florida Policy Institute, said the money could have funded proposals to make housing more affordable, combat wage theft, reduce college costs and more - ideas to help "Floridians recover from the impact of the pandemic, not to support unhelpful and harmful initiatives" around immigration.

    In June, the plan drew the ire of the Southern Poverty Law Center, where Paul R. Chavez, a senior attorney, called on the inspector general for the Treasury Department to look into the matter. A spokesman for the watchdog did not immediately comment on whether it had opened such an inquiry.

    On Thursday, Chavez acknowledged that Florida may have exploited a "loophole" in using interest accrued on the stimulus money. He warned that inaction would inspire other states to follow suit, perhaps reaping the benefits of federal dollars in a way congressional lawmakers did not intend.

    "That's definitely a concern," he said.

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