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Charlie Crist asking feds to require safety belts on all new school buses

Congressman Charlie Crist is looking to better protect students riding school buses.

On Wednesday, the St. Petersburg Democrat introduced the Best to Use Safety (BUS) Belts Act to enhance school bus safety, by requiring all new buses be equipped with safety belts.

The act would also provide grants to upgrade existing buses with seat belts.

“Families across Florida teach their children to buckle up. But for millions of kids across the country their school bus lacks this basic safety feature,” Crist said. “All students deserve access to a safe education – this measure simply extends that principle to children’s transportation to and from school.”

In the past six months, school bus accidents have killed and injured students in Maryland, Tennessee, Massachusetts and on Tuesday, in Omaha, Nebraska. Crist’s BUS Belts Act would aim to prevent injuries and deaths when school bus accidents occur.

“Children are provided the protection of three-point belts when they ride in a car. The same protection should be offered to them in school buses. This legislation would enable this to happen,” added Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council.

Florida already mandates seat belts on school buses, per a bill sponsored by Crist when he was in the state Senate. Federal law currently only covers the driver’s seat on large school buses.

On Tuesday, the Texas state Senate voted to approve legislation requiring all new school buses to come equipped with safety belts. That measure now heads to the Texas House.

Mosquito Zika bills by Darren Soto, Bill Nelson, Marco Rubio pass panels

Two bills with Florida sponsors and cosponsors were approved by committees in both the U.S. Senate and House Wednesday to reauthorize a 2004 law to spend $100 million a year for local grants to help mosquitoes, now in the age of Zika, has been approved by a key committee.

House Resolution 1310, introduced by U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, the Democrat from Orlando, was approved Wednesday by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health.

Earlier, U.S. Senate Bill 849, cosponsored by Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, was approved Wednesday by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The House of Representatives bill was cosponsored by 21 others, including a dozen members of Florida’s delegation.

The companion Senate bill was filed by Maine’s independent U.S. Sen. Angus King.

Both bills intend to reauthorize the “Strengthening Mosquito Abatement for Safety and Health Act” (SMASH Act) of 2004.

They would authorize an additional $100 million per year for five years in grant funding to local mosquito-control efforts to eliminate the mosquitoes responsible for spreading the virus.

They also would also authorize additional funding for public health laboratories so they can better test for the virus, and would require the Government Accountability Office to find ways to improve existing mosquito-control programs.

“One of the best ways to curb the spread of the Zika virus is to eliminate the insects known to carry it,” Nelson stated in a news release from hi suffice. “As summer approaches, Florida’s mosquito population is going to rise, and we need to make sure our local mosquito-control boards have the resources they need to protect their communities.”

Although Zika – the mosquito-borne disease that can cause horrific burt defects – has dropped from the news over the winter, the disease is seasonal along with the mosquitoes, and likely to reemerge soon. With more than 1,300 cases of the virus reported last year, no state has been harder hit by Zika than Florida, Nelson noted.

Sally Boynton Brown coming from Idaho to be new Florida Dems president

Sally Boynton Brown, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party who also made a run for national chair this year, was named the new president of the Florida Democratic Party.

Brown replaces Scott Arceneaux, who in January as executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, under the transition taking place under newly-elected state chair Steven Bittel.

She also was known for a controversy that arose during her run for the DNC chair, when she declared at George Washington University, in a discussion of racial politics within the Democratic Party, that her job was to tell white people when to shut up. She has insisted that all the ensuing controversy – and she lost that election to Tom Perez – was taking her comments out of context; she was referring to white people trying to describe black culture.

Brown announced last week that she was stepping down from the Idaho Democratic Party after five years as executive director.

“Sally shares my optimistic, idealistic enthusiasm,” Bittel said in a news release issued by the Florida Dems. “Her national profile and experience as president of the Democratic State Party Directors are a testament to her impressive party and infrastructure building skills. I look forward to her bringing her knowledge of state party management to Florida as we work to turn our state back to blue.”

During her time as national president of the Association of State Democratic State Executive Directors, Brown traveled the country, training other Democratic parties how to operate, build infrastructure, balance budgets and win elections.

As the executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, Boynton Brown has overseen Democratic victories, and begun successful statewide party building campaigns including candidate training and internship programs.

Also, Boynton Brown expanded the donor base in the Idaho Democratic Party, bringing them into the black and operating with a consistent surplus.  Most recently Boynton Brown received the We Are Emily national award from Emily’s List for her work in Democratic party building.

“I am thrilled to join the FDP team as we engage the grassroots in the work needed to build our party and to win local, state and federal races throughout Florida,” Brown said in the release.

“I look forward to working with everyone across the state as we invigorate the party and save Florida from the GOP policies that harm our lives every day.”

 

Vern Buchanan asks Rick Scott to direct federal anti-drug money into his district

Rep. Vern Buchanan is asking Gov. Rick Scott to send a “significant” amount of newly received federal anti-drug money to his congressional district, parts of which have been among of the hardest hit by the opioid drug crisis.

“I want to make sure that this funding goes where it’s needed most — Florida’s Suncoast,” he wrote in his letter. “My district is suffering and this money will help save lives.”

Florida will receive $27 million in funding from The 21st Century Cures Act to help combat the ongoing opioid epidemic in the state. A total of $485 million is being sent to the states for addressing the crisis of opioid addiction.

Manatee and Sarasota counties had the highest and second-highest number of fentanyl-related deaths per capita in the state in 2015.

Fentanyl, also known as synthetic heroin, killed more Floridians than heroin in 2015, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission. Fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin, was responsible for 911 deaths compared to 779 killed by a heroin overdose.

Buchanan also represents part of Hillsborough County, which he said should receive significant funding as well because it accounted for 12 percent of all babies born addicted to opioids in Florida in 2015.

Buchanan contacted Scott following last week’s announcement that nearly $500 million in federal aid will be distributed this year to states to confront the drug crisis.  The grant funding is part of this year’s $485 million national allocation included in the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill Buchanan strongly supported. Another $485 million national allocation will be sent to states next year. These programs take a multi-pronged approach to tackling drug problems by beefing up drug abuse treatment and prevention, training health care practitioners in best prescribing practices, and improving prescription monitoring.

According to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, Manatee County had the highest number of cocaine deaths per capita in 2015 and 2014 of all 67 counties, the highest number of Florida morphine deaths per capita in 2015 and 2014 and the highest number of Florida heroin deaths per capita in the state in 2015 and 2014

Earlier this year, Buchanan announced that he has co-sponsored the STOP Act (Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act), which would toughen screening of overseas shipments of deadly synthetic drugs coming into the United States.

Florida AARP raises concerns about new GOP health care plan

Although the House has not released all the details on a revised Republican plan to replace and repeal Obamacare, the Florida AARP says that over the past few days, they’ve learned enough to be concerned.

The senior advocacy group believes that about 454,000 Floridians age 50-64 enrolled and receiving tax credits in the ACA Marketplace would see higher health coverage premiums than they are currently paying, more than in any other state.

The American Health Care Act withered last month after House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the American Health Care Act from the floor when it became clear it didn’t have the votes. Most members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus said at the time they would not vote for the bill as it was written.

One of the changes announced in the new plan would make it so insurers could secure a federal waiver that kept them from having to cover certain essential health benefits established by the federal government, and while it would still require that people with pre-existing conditions receive coverage, they could be charged higher premiums. That’s being called the MacArthur Amendment, named after New Jersey Republican Tom MacArthur, co-chair of the moderate Tuesday Group.

Though a state like Florida might not want to secure that waiver, Jeff Johnson from the Florida AARP says that if the GOP plan ultimately allows buying coverage across state lines. This could still permit Floridians to purchase this health insurance “lite” plan for a low premium “perhaps not knowing that they’re not getting the coverage they would expect health insurance to cover.”

In turn, those with chronic conditions would be unlikely to choose a plan that wouldn’t cover a condition that they already have, and more likely purchase a more complete plan.

The problem with that, Johnson says, is if the healthiest people are paying for a cut-rate plan, forcing sicker people to buy a full plan, it will drive those costs up.

“So it affects those who don’t fall for the health-insurance-lite trick,” says Johnson.

Current essential benefits include:

— Outpatient care (essentially doctor visits outside the hospital)

— Emergency services

— Hospitalization

— Pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care

— Mental health and substance use disorder services

— Prescription drugs

— Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices, which help people with injuries and disabilities to recover

— Laboratory services

— Preventive care, wellness services, and chronic disease management

— Pediatric services, including oral and vision care for children

Another element in the new plan would allow states to end its “community rating” provisions. This would allow states to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, by creating so-called “high-risk pools” for individuals with pre-existing conditions.

“We’ve had high-risk pools in the past, and they’ve never really worked,” says Johnson. “They don’t bring in the people who need it. They’re not able to offer insurance at rates that real people can afford who actually need it, and I don’t know that there is anything that would lead us to believe that the results would be different this time around.”

Another element that Florida AARP says they’re trying to get clarity on is language that would allow states to offer a different age rating than the 5:1 that’s in the original AHCA bill. That ratio breaks down into charging those 50-64 up to five times more than those in their 20s. The AARP says that number could go higher, which “could mean worse,” said AARP’s Jeff Johnson.

Stella Mariani-Gonzalez was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in 2001 and ultimately spent hundreds of thousands on her treatment, after her original insurance company said they would only pay for four chemotherapy treatments. She said it was cheaper to remain uninsured after she recovered, and pay out of pocket for routine annual exams until she signed up for the Affordable Care Act in 2014.

“For the first time in years,” she said, “we had the relief of actually being able to afford health care.”

Mariani-Gonzalez acknowledges that she’s had to change doctors “a few times” and has large deductibles.

“At least I know I have something, after hearing about these high-risk pools, it’s just devastating,” she said. “I can’t imagine having to go back to that again.”

AARP also prepared a new analysis examining how Floridians of modest means would fare under the House health plan coverage, outside of high-risk pools for those with pre-existing conditions.

The report shows that in eight Florida counties, premium costs for those aged 50-64 would eat up most, or in some cases all, their annual income.

For example, a Miami-Dade County resident age 64 with an income of $15,000 a year would see an effective premium increase of $11,666 per year, or 77 percent.

In Collier County, a similar individual would see a premium increase of $15,923, actually more than their entire annual income.

A person age 64 in Miami-Dade County with income of $25,000 a year would see effective premium increases of $10,272.  In Collier County, a similar person would see an effective premium increase of $14,529.

While political prognosticators think the newly revised plan could get through the House, there still are no guarantees it would survive in the Senate, where the rules governing the Senate’s reconciliation process requires all changes to have a direct effect on the federal budget. It’s also doubtful such a bill could they garner 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

Report: 7 Fla. public high schools among nation’s best

Seven Florida high schools are among the top 50 public high schools in the nation, according to a new ranking.

U.S. News & World Report on Tuesday placed seven schools stretching from Miami to Sarasota to Jacksonville on its list of the nation’s best public high schools.

Florida’s top-ranked public high school was Pine View School near Sarasota, which was ranked no. 13 nationwide.

It was followed by Design and Architecture Senior High School in Miami, International Studies Charter High School in Miami and International Studies Preparatory in nearby Coral Gables.

Rounding out the list were Westshore Junior/ Senior High School along the Space Coast, Stanton College Preparatory School in Jacksonville and Edgewood Junior/ Senior High School, also along the Space Coast.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

No budget deal yet, Jack Latvala says

With just days left in the 2017 Legislative Session, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala said Tuesday morning there still isn’t a budget deal.

“There is no budget deal,” the Clearwater Republican said, as of 8:15 a.m.

About 15 minutes later, Latvala tweeted “when an agreement is reached on the budget it will be announced by the President and Speaker.”

Senate President Joe Negron wants to see everything in writing, and sent back the House offer within the last 12 hours with changes he’d still like to see made, said Latvala.

The House and Senate were expected to unveil an $83 billion budget Tuesday. The budget framework was expected to give House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Negron their top priorities while delivering a likely-fatal blow to Enterprise Florida, the public-private economic development organization Gov. Rick Scott wants full funding for.

On Tuesday afternoon, Corcoran said the House was “very, very, very close to having allocations agreed to with the Senate,” and even predicted budget conference would begin that evening. But that proved to be overly optimistic, by late evening Katie Betta, the spokeswoman for Negron, said there would be no conference.

The House has approved a “standard operating budget,” or contingency budget, adhering mostly to the budget the Legislature approved last year for the existing fiscal year.

On Wednesday morning, Kristen M. Clark with the Miami Herald reported Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon told Senate Democrats during their caucus meeting the only thing that is firm is allocations. Everything else, Braynon said, “is in play and it’s stuff we have to vote on.”

Braynon, according to Clark’s report, said he expects conference committee members to be named during the floor session today, and meetings to begin tonight.

As a teen, Gainesville pivotal to shaping Andrew Gillum’s political rise, ambition

For the charismatic, 37-year-old mayor of Tallahassee, a day in Gainesville was an opportunity to campaign for Florida governor — the job he hopes to win in next year’s election — but also a chance to reconnect with a place and some people who he describes as “pivotal.”

Following an economic roundtable discussion with University of Florida students and local leaders in business and government Tuesday afternoon — at Tower Technology Park, near Interstate-75 in Alachua County — Andrew Gillum, a native of Miami, took a few minutes in an interview to recall the six formative years he lived in Gainesville, from 1992 -1998, and the important friendships he developed as a teenager.

His family’s move to Gainesville from Miami — to be closer to his paternal grandfather, JT Gillum, who was ill at that time — “felt like moving to a foreign place,” Andrew Gillum said.

But the slower pace, compared to Miami — as well as family members and other community connections in Gainesville — were transformative for Gillum.

“People took time to ask you, “how you doin’?’” he remembered, adding, “It was pivotal to slowing down my life to a pace where I could start to pay real attention to my education, to my community, to setting goals because I got exposed to a different type of environment,” he said.

In Gainesville, his paternal aunt, Patricia Gillum Sams, a graduate of Florida State University, and his paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Gillum, a nurse who worked days at Kanapaha Middle School and nights at North Florida Regional Medical Center, were an inspiration for him.

“I came here and got exposed to a little bit of a different life in some ways — my mom, however, was still driving the school bus, and my dad was still doing construction; we just had exposure to people who had more means and had gone to college.”

He also recalled a teacher at Westwood Middle School — “she had the longest hair,” he said — who made an impact when she insisted that he sign up for an honors curriculum at Gainesville High School. “She said, ‘You ought to do this; you are bright.’”

“That then put me on the trajectory in my sophomore year to taking an honors and a pre-AP course and my junior year taking AP classes and testing and getting some college credits for my AP classes at GHS,” Gillum said. “I can credit that, being pushed to take honors courses, with putting me on a pathway to going to college.”

Of his immediate family — his parents, Charles and Frances Gillum, and six siblings — Andrew Gillum was the first to graduate high school, followed by his two younger siblings, Monique Gillum and Marcus Gillum, who also graduated high school and attended college.

“My parents loved us without measure, but they had to work a lot,” Andrew Gillum said. “They didn’t have time for politics, only for work and church and family.”

He said his parents now live in Valdosta, Georgia, and other members of his family are in Miami or Jacksonville. In Gainesville, he said, there are “just some people who I love and know.”

One of those is the former Gainesville High School director of student activities, Linda Awbrey, who retired last year after more than 40 years with the Alachua County School Board. On her way to Gillum’s 5 p.m. fundraiser, Awbrey — who also spoke at Gillum’s March 4 gubernatorial campaign kickoff in Tallahassee — recalled his “immense heart and great empathy for people.”

She said she met Gillum when she taught a high school leadership class in which he was enrolled. As vice president for the Gainesville High School student body, “He was trying to get people to work together and understand each other,” she said.

Soon Gillum was elected by the Florida Association of Student Councils as state parliamentarian. “That was an unbelievable feat for North Florida,” Awbrey said. “He was so personable and got to know so many people across the state.”

She said the role of parliamentarian consisted of bringing to the governor — at that time Lawton Chiles — student proposals from throughout Florida, some of which the governor passed along to the legislature for consideration.

“Many a time I told him, ‘You will be governor of the State of Florida or president of the United States,’” she recalled.

Gillum attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, and, at age 23 — in 2003, shortly before graduating college — he became the youngest person ever elected to the Tallahassee City Commission. In 2009, he married fellow FAMU grad R. Jai Howard. They became parents to twins — Jackson and Caroline Gillum — in 2014, the same year that Andrew Gillum was elected mayor. The Gillums are expecting a son.

Andrew Gillum credits the Chestnut family of Gainesville with mentoring him into a political career. Charles Chestnut III, the longtime owner of a funeral home, was among those hosting Gillum’s fundraiser at the home of Jason and Rachel Haeseler.

“My mayor, Lauren Poe, has been telling about Andrew Gillum and what a great mayor he is for Tallahassee,” Jason Haeseler said as he greeted guests on the front porch of his home Tuesday night.

Also greeting guests at the Haeseler home was Dr. Cynthia Moore Chestnut, chair of the Alachua County Democratic Party. Her stepson, Charles Chestnut IV, has served on the Gainesville City Commission and in the Florida House of Representatives. He currently serves on the Alachua County Commission.

But it was Gillum’s friendship — beginning in high school — with Christopher Moore Chestnut, the son of Charles Chestnut III and Cynthia Moore Chestnut, that drew Gillum into the politically active Chestnut family.

“Chris and I were in AP classes together,” Gillum said. “We were the only two black men in those classes, so we kind of, you know, bonded.

At that time, Cynthia Moore Chestnut was serving in the Florida House of Representatives, having previously served on the Gainesville City Commission, including as mayor.

“When I learned his mom was a legislator, when I’d call the house to talk to him, I’d spend time on the phone with her,” Gillum recalled. “It was like a big thing to be able to talk with her about important stuff like the legislature,” he said.

He described her as an “informal mentor.”

“My notion was, she wouldn’t have time, but she took time,” he said. “When she took Chris to the capitol for him to be a page for the week, she had me coming up there on the weekend. I was seeing it. I was experiencing it. And I was like, ‘Wow! OK!’”

“She totally inspired me,” Gillum said. “She was really big on education.”

“I’ve got a huge passion for education, and I think I tuned in very early just by virtue of watching at-that-time Rep. Chestnut doing what she was doing,” he said.

After a decade in the House, where she served as chair of the House Committee on Education and vice chair of the Education Appropriations Committee, Cynthia Moore Chestnut was elected to the Alachua County Commission, where she served until 2011.

When asked to comment on Gillum at the fundraiser Tuesday, she said, “I’m actually putting a cheese tray together.”

Cynthia Moore Chestnut — chair of the Alachua County Democratic Executive Committee and a longtime mentor of Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum — greets Andrew Gordon, a professor emeritus of the University of Florida, on Tuesday evening, April 25, 2017, at a fundraiser held at the home of Jason and Rachel Haeseler in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo courtesy Susan Washington)
Andrew Gillum, a candidate for Florida governor, is pictured with Duncan Kabinu of Gainesville Dev Academy on Tues., April 25, 2017. (Photo courtesy Susan Washington)
Andrew Gillum, a candidate for Florida governor, holds a round-table discussion with University of Florida students and local leaders in business and government at the Tower Technology Park in Gainesville, Florida, on Tuesday afternoon, April 25, 2017. Gillum is seated between city commissioners Adrian Hayes-Santos, to Gillum’s right, and Harvey Ward. (Photo courtesy Susan Washington)
Andrew Gillum at 16 (Photo courtesy Gainesville Sun)

 

Confederate flag to hang at City Hall in Florida town

A small Florida town plans to fly a Confederate flag at City Hall this week for Confederate History Day.

Town officials in Belleview, Florida, say they’ve heard no complaints from residents who find the flag objectionable. The flag will be raised to half-staff Wednesday as part of a ceremony by a local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Belleview, a town of about 5,000 residents, is located about 70 miles northwest of Orlando.

Belleview Mayor Christine Dobkowski told the Ocala Star-Banner that Confederate History Day is historically important to the town.

The Confederate flag is offensive to many African-Americans, and its hanging at government buildings has been the subject of intense debate.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

UF law students discuss, debate ahead of Constitutional Revision Commission meeting

Gainesville — With the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission set to hold a public hearing here Wednesday — the fifth of nine hearings scheduled throughout the state as a part of Florida’s unique, citizen-initiative constitutional revision process, which occurs every 20 years — several dozen law students at the University of Florida assembled Monday afternoon in an auditorium named in honor of the chairman of the state’s first CRC, Chesterfield Smith, to discuss the constitutional revision process with a member of the 1997-98 Commission, Jon Mills, and a historian of the state constitution, Mary Adkins.

One thing the students learned in the hourlong talk is that the CRC that convened this year is the first in Florida history that has not been chaired by a graduate of the UF law school.

“Here’s a fun fact,” said Adkins, whose book — Making Modern Florida: How the Spirit of Reform Shaped a New State Constitution — was published last year by University Press of Florida. “From the 1956 group that was created by statute to originally draft this constitution, through to the 1997-98 group, all of them were chaired by a UF law grad.”

Referring to the chair of the 2017-2018 CRC, Carlos Beruff — a real estate developer appointed last month by Gov. Rick Scott — Adkins added, “This particular chair is not a college graduate.”

“There are no minimum qualifications to be a member of the body that has the power to place constitutional amendments directly on the ballot,” she said.

A student spoke up to say he was “very disappointed” in that change in the leadership tradition of the CRC, but Adkins said, “It’s a new era, not a lot of looking toward the past. This is also the first (CRC) in which there are no members on this one that were ever on (a Florida CRC) in the past.”

Mills, who served on the previous CRC, is a dean emeritus of the UF law school and a member of its faculty. He urged students to attend the commission’s hearing and present the proposals they developed in his public policy practicum this semester.

“Many of you already have much more detail in your proposals than almost anybody, so I suggest you follow through,” he said. “I do encourage you to articulate those and put them in front of the commission.”

Mills — who represented Gainesville as a Democrat in the Florida House from 1978-88 and served as House speaker from 1987-88 — recalled a medical marijuana proposal that he opposed when it was presented to the 1997-98 CRC.

“Things you bring up may have their own life,” he told the students. “It may be wrong, but it may happen.”

Mills’ current practicum addresses “constitution-making by initiative and in the context of constitutional commissions,” according to the school’s online catalog. He said that his students have developed constitutional proposals aimed at “making elections broader and more accessible in terms of both registration and days to vote and issues dealing with reapportionment.”

Another proposal developed in his class would ensure that a minimum 1 percent of the state budget is used to fund the judiciary in Florida. Without such a provision in the state constitution, Florida’s judiciary “could be cut entirely,” Mills said, recalling resolutions filed in the state House and Senate this Session that urge the U.S. Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to allow Congress to reject judicial rulings.

Some other proposals UF law students have developed would raise the mandatory retirement age to 75 and repeal a prohibition on a state income tax in Florida, “giving us a little bit of fiscal flexibility,” said Trevor Tezel, a second-year law student from Cocoa Beach.

Adding human rights protections in the categories of “gender identity and sexual orientation” also “seems prudent,” he said.

The CRC hearing in Gainesville is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. at the UF Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. A CRC hearing is also set for Jacksonville Thursday and next month in Panama City, Fort Myers and Hillsborough County.

Jon Mills (second from right) was a member of the 1997-98 Florida Constitution Revision Commission. He is pictured on Mon., April 24, at the University of Florida law school with some of the students enrolled in his spring semester 2017 public policy practicum: from left, Brian Nelson, Anthony Sabatini, Trevor Tezel and Josh Rieger. (Photo courtesy Susan Washington)
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