By Jim Saunders
©2023 The News Service of Florida.
TALLAHASSEE — Arguing that the case is “moot” because of a bill passed during a special legislative session, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed after the state flew about 50 migrants from Texas to Massachusetts in September.
Attorneys for DeSantis and the Florida Department of Transportation filed a motion late Friday in Leon County circuit court, pointing to a bill (SB 6-B) designed to bolster efforts to transport migrants to “sanctuary” areas of the country.
Circuit Judge John Cooper scheduled a hearing Wednesday on the motion.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, filed the lawsuit, alleging that a section of the state budget used to pay for the flights is unconstitutional because it created a new program and changed laws about issues such as contracting. But the bill passed Feb. 10 by the Legislature and signed last week by DeSantis sought to neutralize such arguments.
In part, it repealed the part of the budget that was used as a basis for the flights and created the Unauthorized Alien Transport Program in state law. Also, the bill funneled remaining money provided in the budget section back to state coffers, and allocated $10 million to the newly created program — effectively swapping out money.
“Here, it is indisputable that SB 6-B repeals (the section of the budget),” the motion to dismiss said. “Moreover, by repealing (the section) the Legislature effectively gave plaintiff (Pizzo) precisely what he requested. It eliminated the challenged appropriation, which allegedly amended substantive law, thereby ensuring it cannot be used to transfer unauthorized aliens.”
Pizzo, an attorney, said before the bill passed that DeSantis was trying to make the lawsuit moot. But he also told reporters Feb. 6 there still could be a finding that the section of the budget was unconstitutional, while saying the “governor is losing to me in court.”
The DeSantis administration sparked a national controversy when it flew the migrants Sept. 14 from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, with a brief stop in the Northwest Florida community of Crestview.
The flights came as DeSantis, widely expected to run for president in 2024, frequently criticizes the Biden administration on immigration and border issues. Lawmakers last year included $12 million in the budget for the 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 the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. Also, four additional Vertol purchase orders of $950,000 each are listed on a state contracting website for “relocation services.”
Legislative staff analyses 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 passed during the special session required that the remaining money “immediately revert” to state coffers and said payments already made under the section of the budget are “deemed approved.” Also, it provided $10 million to the state Division of Emergency Management for the Unauthorized Alien Transport Program.
In the motion to dismiss, DeSantis administration lawyers wrote there is “zero chance” that the disputed section of the budget will be “invoked again.”
“Indeed, (the section) no longer exists, and different provisions of Florida law now authorize similar actions,” the motion said. “Thus, not only is there no evidence (the section) will be applied again, but there would be no need.”