By Joseph Ax
(MAINNEWS) – Florida’s legislature on Friday voted to expand Governor Ron DeSantis’ controversial effort to relocate migrants anywhere in the United States and bolster his election police force, backing some of the Republican’s top priorities ahead of a widely anticipated 2024 White House campaign.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved the legislation along party lines. Both bills, which passed the Republican-majority Senate on Wednesday, will now head to DeSantis’ desk for his signature.
State lawmakers are holding a special session to advance several bills at the urging of DeSantis, who has built a national profile by stoking conservative anger as he weighs challenging former President Donald Trump for next year’s Republican presidential nomination.
Last year, DeSantis used taxpayer money to fly dozens of South American migrants from Texas to the wealthy enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, saying he was responding to the federal government’s failed immigration policies.
The move – decried as a political stunt by Democrats and advocates for immigrants – raised legal questions because none of the migrants had been in Florida. Democratic state Senator Jason Pizzo has sued DeSantis as a private citizen, claiming the governor misused taxpayer money.
Friday’s migrants bill would explicitly allow DeSantis to transport migrants from anywhere in the country. It also says money spent on flights in the past is “deemed approved,” which could help defend the governor against claims of misuse.
Democrats, citing allegations that some of the migrants were misled, said the program uses vulnerable people as political props.
“This bill is indefensible,” Representative Christopher Benjamin said on the state House floor. “Stop playing games with people’s lives.”
Republicans said the bill will help migrants who wish to travel to so-called sanctuary cities voluntarily.
“They’re going to get more benefits in a sanctuary state or city than they would here, and we’re simply providing them with a free ticket,” Representative Juan Fernandez-Barquin said.
Republican lawmakers also approved a bill strengthening DeSantis’ election police force, which was created last year in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
DeSantis announced the first 20 arrests by the Office of Election Crimes and Security in August, but some charges have been dismissed due to jurisdictional issues. The new bill is intended to fix that problem by specifically granting the statewide prosecutor the authority to pursue such cases.
Republicans have defended the law as a way of ensuring election integrity. Democrats said the bill would intimidate voters of color in the name of addressing a problem that does not exist. Voter fraud is extremely rare in the United States, studies have shown.
Also at DeSantis’ urging, lawmakers on Friday approved legislation to give him control of Walt Disney World’s special self-governing district, a measure aimed at punishing the company for its opposition last year to a DeSantis-backed bill barring the teaching of gender identity concepts to young children in school. Critics have labeled it the “don’t say gay” law.