Michael Moline - SaintPetersBlog

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

House Speaker: Rick Scott’s focus on Enterprise Florida is misdirected

Gov. Rick Scott should spend less time talking about Enterprise Florida, and more seeking reform of the workers compensation system and assignment of benefits abuse, if he really cares about protecting jobs, House Speaker Richard Corcoran said Thursday.

“We’re talking about a tremendous amount of bandwidth going to Enterprise Florida, going to Visit Florida,” Corcoran told reporters during a wide-ranging news conference.

If the House prevails in its bid to kill Enterprise Florida and other economic incentive programs, and clips Visit Florida’s wings, the savings to taxpayers would amount to $100 million, Corcoran said.

“And the governor’s traveling the state, visiting individual members’ districts, and saying, ‘This is terrible for jobs! This is terrible for jobs!’

“I can tell the governor what’s terrible for jobs — what affects every single business across the board, small and large; what affects every single person out there who owns a home, small and large — is assignment of benefits and workers’ comp,” the speaker said.

Corcoran referred to a 14.5 percent increase in workers’ compensation premiums that began to take effect in December. The House Insurance & Banking committee approved a fix on March 14, but the Senate version has not yet come up for a hearing.

That could cost $550 million in increased premiums. “That’s in year one,” Corcoran said.

“And 14.5 is the initial recommendation — you could see higher increases. And they probably won’t be enough. You could see billions of dollars in increases on every single business.”

Similarly, absent AOB reform, homeowners could experience insurance hikes of as much as $4,000 per yea, Corcoran said, amounting to additional billions.

The House committee approved an AOB reform package the same evening as the workers’ comp bill.

“If I was to give encouragement to the governor, I’d say: ‘Go keep traveling. Start talking about workers’ comp and assignment of benefits, which have far more effects than Enterprise/Visit Florida on jobs,” Corcoran said.

“How can you just be silent on what really will hit jobs — really will cost people dramatic increases, homeowners and businesses? And he’s focused on $100 million that has little if not zero impact on jobs,” he said.

“Go over to the Senate and … get those guys on board for jobs,” Corcoran said.

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House votes to bar use of red light cameras to monitor intersections

The Florida House voted Thursday to ban the use of red light cameras to enforce traffic laws in the state.

The vote on final passage went 91-22.

Supporters argued the cameras don’t save lives and have become money-makers for vendors, some of them located out of state.

“It has become less about public safety and more about revenue,” said Larry Ahern, the Seminole Republican who presented the bill.

The state is sending $35 million to out-of-state vendors, he said. Yet the cameras are not stopping repeat traffic offenders — there were more than 150,000 of those recorded in the state, he said.

HB 6007 repeals state authorization for red light cameras and bans their use by local governments. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.

Infractions linked to the cameras have generated about $18.8 million for the state thus far this budget year, according to a legislative analysis.

Al Jacquet, a Democrat from Lantana, argued that the cameras violate the 6th Amendment right to confront witnesses.

“With the red light camera program, they have no opportunity to confront that camera, because a camera is not a law enforcement officer,” Jacquet said.

“It is a revenue program, not a safety program,” he said.

The cameras had their defenders. Larry Ahern noted a more than 50 percent decrease in accidents at intersections.

“It does change drivers’ behavior. I think red light cameras are saving the lives of Floridians.”

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Tourism advocates raise specter of Rick Scott’s veto in Visit Florida fight

Tourism industry leaders hope to escape the Legislative Session with a least a reasonable portion of Visit Florida intact, notwithstanding hostility in the House toward economic incentives that many members consider corporate welfare.

“Never underestimate the power of the veto pen,” Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said during the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s Capitol Days symposium.

“I know for a fact that there are a lot of freshman legislators who really believe, ‘If I hold strong, I’m going to get these (local) projects to take home.’ At the end of the day, I think they’re forgetting that there’s this pen, and one man holds it. And we all know what he wants.”

She referred to Gov. Rick Scott’s insistence that the Legislature fund Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida, and other economic development initiatives he sees as the key to his jobs agenda.

David Hart, the Chamber’s vice president for government affairs, noted that the House wants to cut Visit Florida’s budget by $50 million — or about two thirds. The Senate — particularly budget chairman Jack Latvala — support the incentives.

Still, Hart expressed concern for what might happen when Visit Florida money lands in conference committee. He referred to reports that the economic incentives could become a bargaining chip for Senate President Joe Negron’s $2 billion Lake Okeechobee plan.

“That does get us in the zone of the governor’s veto and possible special sessions beyond as we go into May, June, July,” Hart said.

“That would be nuclear,” Dover said.

“I hope we’re not there, but it’s too soon to say that’s off the table,” Hart added.

When it comes to legislative triage, Dover said she supports Enterprise Florida but continued, “We only have so many chits in the basket when you’re a lobbyist. And my chits are in the Visit Florida basket.”

Visit Florida originally relied more on private dollars, and was created so marketers could escape the bureaucratic restraints the House now wants to impose, said Dan Olson, the program’s No. 2.

Dover, who sits on Visit Florida’s board, conceded missteps.

“As a board member, it never crossed my mind that, as we were getting more and more money from the government, we needed to shift our business model,” Dover said.

But the House bill would be too onerous, she said. For example, businesses contracting with the agency would have to disclose employees’ salaries.

“They’re just not going to do business with Florida. It’s too cumbersome,” Dover said.

“We’re not trying to say we don’t need to be transparent. We’re trying to take some of the real onerous, bureaucratic transparency that will shackle them from doing their jobs.”

During every recent crisis that might have dampened tourism — the Pulse shootings, two hurricanes, Zika — Visit Florida launched marketing campaigns within 24 hours to tell out-of-staters it was still alright to come.

The House bill would require sign-off for such spending from the governor and Legislative Budget Commission, which meets quarterly, she said.

“We could be sitting here with devastation from a hurricane, and we can’t do anything until all three branches of the government look at our plan and decide if we can spend the money.”

Is it time to panic?

Dover shook her head.

“I really believe in the House. I believe in Richard Corcoran,” she said “I know that Land O’ Lakes is not a tourism (hub) but he is the speaker of the House,” she said.

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Joe Negron adds to committees’ strength during Dorothy Hukill’s recovery

While Sen. Dorothy Hukill recovers from cervical cancer, Senate President Joe Negron has named additional members to committees on which she serves.

In a memo dated Tuesday, Negron said Sen. Anitere Flores will help out in the Education Committee, which Hukill leads.

“Sen. Hukill will remain the chair of the Committee on Education,” Negron aide Katie Betta said. “Under the Senate rules, the chair designates a senator on the committee to serve in her absence on a week by week basis.”

Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala takes a seat on the budget Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto will serve on the Health Policy Committee. And Ben Galvano will sit on the Transportation Committee.

The appointments take effect immediately, Negron said.

“I appreciate your willingness to take on this additional responsibility on behalf of the Florida Senate,” he wrote.

“Sen, Hukill is still on all of these committees,” Betta said.

Hukill has been absent from Tallahassee during the Legislative Session, but has been following proceedings remotely.

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Chamber laments the rise of trial bar’s influence with Florida Legislature

The business community believes trial lawyers hold the upper hand in the Legislature for the first time in years.

The business community is not happy about that.

“Their bills are on rocket fuel and are moving through the process,” Mark Delegal, a partner at Holland & Knight, said during a panel discussion at the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s annual Capitol Days symposium.

“We are sounding the alarm about what is going on. Let’s make this just a two-year anomaly. We’ve got to lock down as a community, as businesses, and stop this aggression that’s going on, and move back to where we are on the offense.”

Delegal participated in the discussion with Steve Kopnik, chairman and CEO of Beall’s Inc.; Barry Gilway, president and CEO of Citizens Property Insurance Corp.; and Quentin Kendall, vice president for government affairs for CSX Transportation.

Business priorities this year include workers’ compensation reform and assignment of benefits abuse.

But the panel also spent time decrying legislation that would give plaintiffs the opportunity to receive prejudgment interest on legal claims. The Chamber produced a video to warn the business community against the measure.

The bill stalled last week during a hearing before the Senate Rules Committee, but isn’t dead.

Kendall lamented that tort reform seems to be languishing in the Legislature, following good years beginning under former Gov. Jeb Bush and a subsequent equilibrium with trial lawyers.

“This prejudgment interest bill symbolically represents the turning of the tide, and the ongoing march of the trial lawyers to decrease the already low, 44th, ranking we have in legal climate in the United States,” Kendall said.

The bill would discourage defendants from fighting meritless claims, and defendants couldn’t recover their litigation expenses if they prevail, he said.

He surveyed the landscape. In the House, the bill’s sponsor is Shawn Harrison, who holds an “A” rating from the Chamber. It went through the Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee, whose chairwoman, Heather Fitzenhagen, “works for John Morgan,” the plaintiffs’ attorney.

“This isn’t the Onion, folks,” Kendall said.

The House bill passed out of that committee on an 11-4 vote, despite efforts by “our champion there,” Jay Fant.

“Jay said, ‘Quentin, they’re laughing at us. They’re just laughing at us now.’ ”

Even in the Senate, “we needed two Democratic senators to hold this thing up,” Kendall said.

“There were no questions about how this would affect the business community,” he said.

“We need to understand what this represents. This is a slippery slope of where the future is in our position vis a vis the Florida Legislature unless we’re able to stop this and turn the tide.”

Delegal recalled a time when Democrats controlled the Legislature and trial lawyers would try for one or two pieces of legislation each year, retreating when Republicans captured both chambers.

“The last 20 years, we’ve been on the offense. We’ve not always successfully prosecuted our bills, but many times we have.”

Now, “we have seen a radical sea change in just this year,” he said.

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At Florida Chamber gathering, a vigorous defense of economic incentives

Florida is, too, open for business, representatives of the state’s economic development arm and business insisted during a panel discussion organized by the Florida Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.

“We’re a high performing business that’s open for business. We’ve just temporarily shut down the marketing and sales department. What we’re trying to do is make sure that’s not a permanent situation,” said Mark Wilson, the Chamber’s president and CEO.

“Florida has a lot going for it. What we need to do is fight to make sure to tell the rest of the world about it. And that we don’t, in the middle of this argument with each other, we don’t accidentally take Florida backward, and let other people brand Florida as something that it’s not.”

Discussion of whether Florida was open for business came on Day 2 of the Chamber’s annual Capitol Days, coinciding with the Legislative Session.

The “argument” is the debate over whether to abolish Enterprise Florida and other state economic incentives programs. The House has already voted to do so, although the Senate is resisting.

The mere debate has already served notice that Florida is withdrawing the welcome mat. Mike Grissom, interim director of Enterprise Florida, said the office recently lost a key prospect over fear of “instability in government.”

The state brings inherent economic advantages to the competition, including a friendly regulatory environment and labor laws, and low taxes, said Florida Power & Light President Eric Silagy.

”But we are now facing some challenges from a standpoint of perception,” he said.

“We have to be very careful managing Florida’s brand — the perception beyond our borders. It’s a fragile kind of system and, if you’re not careful, you can break it.”

Grissom and Cissy Proctor, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, attempted to refute complaints that these programs constitute “corporate welfare.” Applicants are carefully vetted for economic and reputational strength, Proctor said. Incentive payments go out only after companies have lived up to their promises.

Wilson linked such complaints to the Occupy Wall Street movement, amplified by the libertarian Koch brothers and their Americans for Prosperity.

“Any politician who says, ‘This is just a slush fund that we hand money out to people,’ that’s malpractice. Any reporter who says that’s how it works, that would be fake news,” Wilson said.

Meanwhile, economic development officials in other states are capitalizing on the Florida controversy.

“They love what’s going on right now in Florida, because it’s truly creating an opportunity for them to retain companies that were looking to leave or attract others from other states who are looking to relocate,” Silagy said.

But these programs are the key to diversifying the state’s economy, he continued.

“It is not a question of whether or not there’s going to be another recession. It’s just when, and how deep will it be,” he said.

“What I worry about, if I can be blunt, is this state is going through amnesia. It wasn’t long ago when we had an economy that was absolutely in the tank and leading the country in going down the tubes that way, because our economy was not nearly as diversified as it could have been, should have been.”

Florida needs to learn from Texas, he said, which suffered much less because it had diversified its economy from oil and gas following the collapse of fuel prices during the early 1980s.

“Before I invest capital anywhere, I want to make sure I’m going to a market that wants be to be there, that welcomes me,” Silagy said.

“And that I have a view that it’s going to be good place to do business for a long period of time. One of the best ways to do that is making sure that location is invested in me. So when things do go badly, they’re standing next to me.”

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House gambling bill clears Ways and Means Committee on 11-7 vote

The House Ways & Means Committee voted Tuesday for legislation that would extend Indian gambling in Florida but otherwise restrict the growth of the industry in Florida.

The bill (HB 7037), by Rep. Mike La Rosa, passed out of the committee on an 11-7 vote.

La Rosa argued the bill is the key to negotiating a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe.

“I think they’re trying to get the best deal. That may mean other games or, of course, paying less revenue. At the end of the day, we’re representing our constituent base here in the state of Florida. We’re going to get the best deal for them,” La Rosa said.

La Rosa chairs the Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee, which already OK’d the measure 10-5. The next stop is the Commerce Committee.

The debate Tuesday pitted members skeptical of gambling against those who see it as expanding jobs and the economy.

For example, when ranking Democrat Joseph Abruzzo protested language restricting pari-mutuel betting, La Rosa said that was the point.

“Philosophically, I’m not a proponent for expanding gaming. And if we give them more, we would be expanding gaming,” La Rosa said.

Proponents also worried about Florida’s brand as a family-friendly vacation destination. Democrats including Joseph Geller objected to “poison pill” language that might steer gambling proceeds to charter schools.

“We have gambling now. It just doesn’t define us. I hope it never will,” said Jeff Kottkamp, representing the Florida Greyhound Association.

Abruzzo remarked that many gambling interests were absent from the hearing.

“They’ve been dealing with this year after year after year. At some point, they just want anything to move past our committee processes, and anything to move in the Senate. So we can get to conference, and everything can be negotiated and changed,” he said.

“I’m not, honestly, focused on what they’re (the Senate) is doing,” La Rosa told reporters following the vote. “I’m focused on what we need to get out of here. Then we’ll sit down and chat with them.”

He said House members are talking to the Seminole Tribe — which has indicated “they like our bill better than what the Senate has proposed.”

There are many contrasts between the House and Senate legislation. The Senate’s gambling bill (SB 8) has cleared all its committees and is awaiting a hearing on the chamber floor.

The House bill would outlaw designated-player card games, but the Senate would let “all card room operators … offer designated player games.” 

The House also would prohibit the expansion of slot machines, while the Senate generally expands the availability of slot machines.

Moreover, La Rosa’s legislation would divert the state’s cut of the Seminole gambling money — $3 billion over seven years — for education, split three ways among K-12 teacher recruitment and retention bonuses, schools that serve students from persistently failing schools, and for “higher education institutions to recruit and retain distinguished faculty.”

Abruzzo, of Boynton Beach, withdrew amendments that would have allowed slot machines and traditional casino games including blackjack and roulette upon approval by a vote of county residents and the city or county government involved.

The operations would have to turn over 35 percent of their take to the local government.

If the voters or local government says “No,” the matter cannot be raised again for five years.

He said he hope to pursue those options later.

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Florida’s revenue picture improves a little — but not enough to really matter

The Legislature will have $271 million more than it expected to spend this year, but close to 90 percent of the new money is a one-shot deal, and won’t help budget writers with ongoing demands upon a state budget projected at close to $83 billion.

State economists arrived at their new forecast during a revenue estimating conference Friday.

Total general revenues will near $32.4 billion, representing dependable flows of money to pay for most of the state’s needs, not counting taxes pledged to projects like housing and roads and federal contributions.

Amy Baker, director of the state Office of Demographic and Economic Research, said that, for all practical purposes, not much has changed.

“They’re going to end up maybe a little bit better than what we were contemplating in September,” she told reporters. “But it’s not materially different.”

Much of the new money — $226 million — represents unspent cash left over from the current budget year. The Legislature can use it for one-time projects — perhaps one of Gov. Rick Scott’s sales tax holidays for veterans, outdoorsmen, or school children. But it won’t support ongoing state needs.

“Since the last forecast was adopted, total collections have been running slightly over estimate; however, more than half the reported gain year-to-year is attributable to one-time adjustments and technical issues that do not alter the underlying long-term forecast,” conference participants said in a printed summary.

Sales taxes, comprising the bulk of general revenues, “saw percentage changes that round to zero in each year,” the summary reports.

Meanwhile, the state faces escalating demand for Medicaid and K-12 classroom dollars.

The revised forecast for the 2018-19 budget year were revised upward by $68 million, to $32.2 billion. The 2019-20 number grew by $148 million, to $33.6 billion.

The state will collect $69 million more than had been expected in corporate income taxes, reflecting healthy national profit growth. Still, corporate tax refunds have lagged behind expectations, so the bottom line is about $91 million short of earlier expectations.

Insurance premium taxes have been coming in more slowly than expected. The conference did not account for any changes to the Affordable Care Act.

Record tourist traffic has helped to offset a sluggish construction industry.

“That we’re not taking away money is terrific for them,” Baker said of lawmakers. “Any money we add helps ease the picture.”

House leaders, complaining of escalating spending over the years, were worried about the prospect of more or less flat revenues during the new budget year. So they began looking for places to cut.

House Budget chairman Carlos Trujillo has discussed a target of $1.4 billion in cuts. He ordered the budget subcommittees to come up with “A” scenario and “B” scenario plans — the first involving cuts of about $1 billion; the latter, about $2 billon.

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House spending reduction targets would spread plenty of pain

The House released its bad-case and worst-case scenarios for the next state budget Thursday. Neither is very pretty.

Florida faces would pay hospital less to treat poor people. The state would build less affordable housing. There’d be fewer prosecutors and public defenders.

Museums, historical preservation, and economic development would be slashed.

For example:

“The long-range financial outlook recommended a hospital provider rate increase of $55.2 million based on past actions by the Legislature. I would not recommend funding this increase,” Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jason Brodeur wrote.

He also recommended cutting “hospital inpatient and/or outpatient reimbursements of approximately $220.6 million in general revenue.”

All told, the budget subcommittees were instructed to come up with “A” scenario and “B” scenario plans — the first involving cuts of about $1 billion; the latter, about $2 billon. Budget chairman Carlos Trujillo has also discussed a target of $1.4 billion in cuts.

House leaders are worried about the prospect of more or less flat revenues during the new budget year. The state’s Revenue Estimating Conference will meet Friday to update the forecast.

The Health Care subcommittee had a minimum goal of cutting $275.8 million. That would require reducing payments to hospitals, among other cuts.

It would meet its larger goal, of $573.8 million, by canceling Medicaid provider rate increases, cutting substance abuse and mental health programs, and cutting payments to nursing homes, among other reductions.

The minimum target for the Higher Education subcommittee was $144.8 million. It would give state universities only $70 million of the $161 million they asked for, and drop projects that no longer needed state money or couldn’t justify their expense.

Additionally, universities would have to cough up 5 percent of the $800 million in unspent money they have been allowed to retain.

The bigger target, $304.8 million, would require holding universities to existing spending levels — in other words, they’d get none of that $161 million they sought. The committee’s report noted that university spending has increased by more than 27 percent in four years.

The Justice subcommittee’s minimum target was $126.6 million. Getting there would require, in part, leaving positions vacant, taking nearly $62 million from trust funds at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Department of Corrections, and other law enforcement agencies.

D.A.R.E. would be eliminated. State attorneys and public defenders would lose $8.3 million, ostensibly justified by a lower crime rate. State courts would lose 147 positions and get less for travel expenses.

The committee would save another $7.7 million diverting drug offenders from prison into treatment programs.

Meeting the panel’s larger target — $273.6 million — would require additional position cuts and money from trust funds, plus diversion of other nonviolent offenders from the prison system.

Meeting the Pre-K-12 subcommittee’s minimum of $232.7 million would entail, among other economies, saying “No” to $187.5 million in high-priority needs. Cuts required to achieve the big target, $485 million, would include swallowing larger class sizes.

Chairman Manny Diaz noted that he’d invited local project administrators to defend their program. Sixteen out of 37 did not show.

“Therefore, committee members were unable to ask their questions and/or receive clarification of any of the data that was provided,” Diaz reported.

He recommended them for the chopping block.

The Transportation and Tourism subcommittee suggested ways to cut $156 million, and they don’t look good for the state’s economic development programs, already largely targets for elimination by House leaders.

To hold law enforcement programs harmless, the panel would take $50 million from Visit Florida. Cultural and museum, historic preservation, and library grants would be cut.

To meet its big target — $321 million — the panel would raid trust funds supporting economic development and contributions to outreach programs to Korea, Japan, and Latin America.

Additionally, the committee would have to target trust funds for affordable housing or state transportation projects. It did not give any numbers.

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Task Force wants money to fight encroachment on Florida military bases

Florida would place its military installations at risk of commercial encroachment — and, possibly, closure — without adequate funding for land acquisition through the Florida Forever land acquisition program, a military support organization warned Thursday.

Some $3 million from U.S. Department of Defense funds will be lost at the end of 2018 unless the state provides matching funds, said Bruce Grant, Enterprise Florida vice president for military programs, told the Florida Defense Support Task Force during a meeting in Tallahassee.

The task force operates under Enterprise Florida’s purview.

“Most legislators may not connect (Florida Forever) with military land buffering,” Grant said. “But there is a connection.”

He referred to federal program called REPI — the Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative. Since 2002, REPI has matched $19.4 million against $72 million in state funds to protect more than 68,000 acres buffering military bases.

The Legislature is considering spending $15 million on Florida Forever in the next budget, with $5 million tagged for the Florida Keys, Grant said.

Florida needs to pony up for land acquisition near Naval Air Station Whiting Field, in Santa Rosa County, and the Avon Park Air Force range or lose the federal matches, Grant said.

Additional projects would shield Tyndall Air Force Base in Bay County, and Camp Blanding, near Starke, the main training base for the Florida National Guard.

“With limited funding in Florida Forever, it only goes so far,” said David Clark, director of the Florida Division of State Lands.

“We’re trying to leverage that as wisely as we can,” he said.

Senate President Joe Negron’s plan to stop discharges of toxic algae from Lake Okeechobee would divert billions of dollars from Florida Forever to finance water projects around the state.

Buffering acquisitions are intended to shield the state’s 20 military installations against nearby commercial development that might compromise their missions — say, a housing development along a runway approach, or near a target range.

With the federal government expected to review bases for closure in 2019 or 2021, “now is not the time to pull back and pause,” said Kellie Jo Kilberg, of the Florida Defense Alliance, which promotes military programs in the state.

“Now is the time for us to really come together and … fund those programs, so that our 20 installations here in the state, that we don’t lose those, and that we do continue to gain and add to the economy,” she said.

Also implicated is the state’s Defense Infrastructure Grant — DIG — program, which also draws federal REPI money. The state has consistently funded the program at around $1.6 million.

“For Okaloosa County, alone, I have just short of $1 million waiting for the county to be able to execute, using the DIG program funds,” said Jeff Fanto, a community planner at Eglin Air Force Base.

Rep. Clay Ingram, the Pensacola Republican who chairs the task force, shared those concern.

“It’s important that the military component at least he in the conversation with regard to spending those dollars,” Ingram said.

“Because some of the most pristine lands in this state are in these conservation areas and easements that we’ve created around our military installations. They’re worthy of funding,” he said.

“The other benefit, though, is making the installations more valuable and less likely to be closed,” Ingram said.

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