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 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, which received a total of $8.8 billion from the rescue package, state lawmakers earlier this year adopted a spending blueprint that redirected some of the interest 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 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.”
Spokespeople for the Treasury Department and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation, which oversees the relocation money, also did not respond.
The Covid Money Trail
It was the largest burst of emergency spending in U.S. history: Two years, six laws and more than $5 trillion intended to break the deadly grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The money spared the U.S. economy from ruin and put vaccines into millions of arms, but it also invited unprecedented levels of fraud, abuse and opportunism.
In a yearlong investigation, The Washington Post is following the covid money trail to figure out what happened to all that cash.
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 federal coronavirus aid. Florida has been among the most aggressive states 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.
Florida did not appear to use any federal aid money directly for the flights to Martha’s Vineyard or its other border-related initiatives. Rather, it wrote into law a plan to tap the interest it accrued on federal funds, which may allow the state to sidestep questions of misuse.
But local experts and advocates still said this week that the policy 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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