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Legislative leaders announce committee week schedule

Florida lawmakers will head back to Tallahassee in mid-September to kick-off the 2018 Legislative Session.

Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran outlined the interim committee week schedule in memos to their respective members Thursday. The schedule, as it stands right now, includes one week in September, two weeks in October and November, and one in December.

The first week of committee meetings begins on or after 1 p.m. on Sept. 12. Members will then return for meetings during the week of Oct. 9 and Oct. 23.

They’ll be back in Tallahassee for meetings during the week of Nov.6, but both Negron and Corcoran note “meetings will conclude prior to the observance of the Veterans’ Day holiday” on Friday, Nov. 10. Members will be asked to return to the capital city for committee meetings during the week of Nov. 13.

The only committee week scheduled in December is during the week of Dec. 4.

According to Negron’s memo, travel to Tallahassee is authorized for senators and one member of district staff beginning on Sunday of each week of scheduled committee meetings. Travel from Tallahassee back to the district is authorized at the conclusion of the meeting.

The 2018 Legislative Session begins at noon on Jan. 8. The annual 60-day Session is scheduled to end on March 9.

Mural

Absent any takers, Senate mural in limbo

You can’t give away some art these days.

At least 10 museums or other institutions have declined an offer from the Florida Senate to donate its “Five Flags Mural“—now in storage—that formerly adorned the wall outside the chamber’s 5th floor public and press galleries in the Capitol.

“Most cited the size of the mural and their limited capacity for storage as the reason why they could not accept it,” Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said Thursday.

The nearly 40-year-old mural, installed during construction of the current 1978 Capitol building, is 10 feet by 16 feet.

But it may not help that it also depicts a Confederate general and flag. Contention has been stoked recently across Florida, including Tampa and Orlando, and the South as cities debate and have begun removing Confederate statues and other memorials.

This week, an effort to rename several roads in Hollywood bearing the names of Confederate generals led to angry confrontation. One black state legislator, Democrat Shevrin Jones, told the Miami Herald he was called the N-word and a “monkey.”

According to Betta, institutions that have turned down the mural include:

— Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala.

— Daytona Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach.

— FSU Museum of Fine Arts in Tallahassee.

— Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.

— Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.

— West Florida Trust in Pensacola.

— Jacksonville Historical Society.

— Jacksonville Museum of Science and History.

— Florida Park Service.

— Tallahassee Museum.

The mural, painted by artist Renee Faure of Jacksonville, includes a Confederate general and flag. The Senate voted to remove a Confederate flag from its official seal and insignia in 2015.

Then-Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa had explained that the flag is a “painful symbol of oppression.”

The flag is over the shoulder of Gen. Joseph Finnegan, commander of the Confederate forces at the February 1864 Battle of Olustee in north Florida, the largest Civil War battle fought in the state.

But Betta previously said the mural was taken down during the Senate chamber’s renovation last year because it was showing signs of age, including fading and peeling.

Since then, it “has been properly cared for and stored by the Historic Capitol,” she added Thursday.

“The Senate plans to keep the mural stored in its current location for the time being,” Betta said. “The Senate remains open to the possibility of transferring ownership, if an institution comes forward with the capacity to display the mural.”

As Special session opens, the Florida Senate asserts its prerogatives

That deal everyone assumed Gov. Rick Scott struck with legislative leaders to ensure a smooth special session?

It didn’t exist. At least, it didn’t include Senate President Joe Negron.

Scott invited him to Friday’s press conference held to announce that he was calling a three-day special session on education, Visit Florida, and Enterprise Florida, Negron said Wednesday. He went out of respect for the governor, but there was no meeting of minds.

“It was very clear to the governor, in my communications with him, also through our staff, that any particular details of how the special session would unfold were not agreed to by the Senate. In fact, we were never even approached about those particular details,” Negron told reporters.

“Some falsely interpreted the events as a narrative involving the House, the Senate, and the governor,” he said.

“The Senate’s been very clear that we’re here to do the people’s work.” Just as Scott and the House have their priorities, “the Florida Senate has its own ideas and its own ways that we think the budget can be improved,” Negron said.

For his part, Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala bristled at suggestions the Senate was bound to any deal.

“The mood of the chamber is, we want to do what’s right for the people we represent. And we’re not going to told what to by somebody else,” he said.

The Senate began bucking as soon as it left the gate. It voted to override Scott’s vetoes of various public schools and higher education projects — as an “insurance policy” against House high-handedness regarding the plan to boost spending by $215 million, Latvala told the senators.

The Senate also asserted its prerogatives on the economic development package, and will debate reinstating $100 million in Medicaid reimbursement cuts to charity hospitals.

Sen. David Simmons plans to offer an amendment to divert $389 million pledged to HB 7069 — the Schools of Hope Bill — for the public schools.

Some $100 million of that would provide wrap-around services to kids in underperforming schools — meaning “intensive assistance to children in low-performing schools,” Simmons said — the very ones targeted by Schools of Hope charters.

Simmons argued to reporters that there’s no way the program can get off the ground during the new budget year. In the meantime, it makes sense to spend the “fallow” money on pressing needs, he said.

Latvala saw irony in the House’s cooperation with Scott on the incentives package in light of criticism of the Legislature over behind-closed-doors deal on the Appropriations Act. The governor was among the critics.

“When you give the Senate a bill that you have written between the governor’s office and the House of Representatives and say, ‘This is what we want,’ what’s different about that? Out of the three, it’s just a different two of the three making the decision,” he said.

Sen. Anatere Flores is carrying legislation that would restore $100 million of the $200 million in cuts to hospitals that treat Medicaid patients under the Appropriations Act. That would draw an additional $160 million in federal funds.

She would get the money from the state’s rainy day fund, which, fed by Scott’s line item vetoes would still total around $3 billion, Flores said. There’d be $1.3 billion in the working capital fund, enough to preserve the state’s bond rating.

“We would be somewhat derelict in our duties if we didn’t go back and say, there are some other issues that we could take a stab at,” Flores said.

“These are pregnant mothers. These are children. This is their safety net,” she said.

Is she talking to House leaders?

“I think that we’re all just talking right now. Soon, maybe, we’ll be talking to each other. I hope.”

Regarding the outlook for a timely adjournment on Friday, Negron was conciliatory after the Senate concluded business for the evening.

“The Senate’s relationship with the governor has been very productive,” he said.

“I don’t take it as an offense when the governor exercises his constitutional right to get a final review of the budget and to veto certain items,” he said. “Under our constitutional system, the Legislature gets to also make a review.”

And he welcomed the House’s movement toward positions Scott and the Senate have embraced all along.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. We certainly understand where the House is on their priorities. I hopeful over the next two days we can continue the dialog,” Negron said.

Senate sends $82.4 billion budget to Rick Scott

The budget is on the governor’s desk.

Senate President Joe Negron sent 13 bills, including the 2017-18 spending plan, to Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday. Scott now has until June 15 to act on the $82.4 billion spending plan, but exactly how he plans to proceed remains unclear.

The Naples Republican has been tight-lipped on his plans for the budget, telling reporters in Fort Myers on Tuesday he can veto the entire budget, a portion of the budget, or veto a line in the budget.

“I’m going to do what I do every year,” he said. “I’ll look through the budget and make sure the dollars are allocated in a manner that I think is good for the state.”

Scott has spent the past few weeks traveling the state criticizing lawmakers for their decision to cut funding for Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida. The fiscal 2017-18 budget includes $25 million in it for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency. The budget includes some funding for Enterprise Florida operations, but does not include the money Scott requested for business development incentives

The governor did not receive as large of a tax cut he had requested; and state lawmakers didn’t include money in the budget for the Herbert Hoover Dike, a late-in-the-game request made by Scott.

Scott has criticized lawmakers for the lack of transparency, saying Floridians didn’t know what was in the budget until the last minute.

“This is my seventh budget and every year, I have a team that works with me,” he said Tuesday. “But what’s different or frustrating is we knew nothing about the budget until right at the end, because it was done all behind closed doors.”

Scott vetoed more than $256.1 million in spending lawmakers presented him with the 2016-17 budget last year. According to data compiled by LobbyTools, the governor has vetoed more than $1.9 billion during his first six years in office.

There are currently 108 bills on the governor’s desk. He must act on more than a dozen of those bills by the end of the day today.

The hangover: Rick Scott vetoes ‘whiskey & Wheaties’ bill

Saying it could hurt job creation, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a contentious bill that would have removed the ‘wall of separation’ between hard liquor and other goods.

Scott filed his veto letter of the measure (SB 106) on Wednesday night, his deadline to act on the bill. It’s the first veto of a bill from the 2017 Legislative Session.

It would have removed the 82-year-old requirement, enacted in Florida after Prohibition, that hard liquor be sold in a separate store. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in the Sunshine State.

But independent liquor store owners and other opponents flooded the Governor’s Office with thousands of emails and petitions against the bill.

Scott was careful to explain his position in his veto letter, balancing his concerns over jobs with the desires of big businesses that sorely wanted him to approve the legislation.

“Since becoming governor in 2011, I have repealed almost 5,000 regulations to reduce unnecessary burdens on Floridians,” he wrote. “From the day I took office, I have been committed to eliminating regulations that impose duplicative and unnecessary requirements on Florida’s citizens and businesses.

“I carefully reviewed this bill and I have met with stakeholders on both sides,” the governor added. “I listened closely to what they had to say and I understand that both positions have merit.

“Nevertheless, I have heard concerns as to how this bill could affect many small businesses across Florida. I was a small business owner and many locally owned businesses have told me this bill will impact their families and their ability to create jobs.”

For example, Kiran Patel, who owns liquor stores in Melbourne and Palm Bay, told lawmakers earlier this year that if the proposal became law, “we are finished … There’s no way we can even compete with” big box stores, which will “put pallets and pallets” of booze out in the open.

Amit Dashondi, who owns liquor stores in Brevard County, said his customers had been rooting for a veto.

“They love their independent liquor stores,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday night. “We know our customers by name. That’s not going to happen in big, corporate stores. They know how to take your money, and that’s it.”

Most recently, Costco had joined Wal-Mart, Target and others in one last push to get Scott to sign the bill, known by the nickname “whiskey and Wheaties.”

“Requiring retailers to segregate spirits into a separate store is outdated, discriminatory and unnecessary in a modern marketplace,” said Jay Hibbard, vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council, which supported the bill. “Florida consumers want the same convenience of one-stop shopping that consumers in most states enjoy. We encourage the Legislature to make this a priority in the next session.” 

Whole Foods Market and the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association also were for the bill. But the Publix supermarket chain was against it because of its investment in its many separate liquor stores.

The veto effort was a rare effort by rivals: Florida’s own ABC Fine Wines & Spirits opposed the measure, as did the Florida Independent Spirits Association, representing smaller, independent liquor stores. Both were led by lobbyist Scott Dick, who fought against the proposal every year since it was filed in 2014.

There was last-minute lobbying on the measure: Scott’s public schedule for Tuesday shows he had taken a call with Wal-Mart U.S. President and CEO Greg Foran, and met in Tallahassee with ABC’s CEO and Chairman Charles Bailes III. 

“Thanks to Gov. Scott, we now have the opportunity to keep our doors open and keep our Florida workforce going strong,” said Rory Eggers, president of the Florida Independent Spirits Association, in a statement.

Added Bailes: “We believe he made his decision based on what is best for the State of Florida. We applaud the governor for saving hundreds of Florida small businesses that employ thousands of Floridians, while at the same time keeping safeguards in place for minors.”

The bill passed both chambers on close margins: 21-17 in the Senate and a razor thin 58-57 in the House. Also, five House members who missed the vote voted ‘no’ after the roll call.

Among other things, the bill would have required miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and allowed for a 5-year phase-in. It further called for employees over 18 to check customers’ ID and approve sales of spirits by cashiers under 18.

whiskey Wheaties

Big-box chains, others make one last push for ‘whiskey & Wheaties’

Costco now is joining Wal-Mart, Target and others in one last push to get Gov. Rick Scott to sign a bill to remove the ‘wall of separation’ between hard liquor and other goods.

Their Floridians For Fair Business Practices coalition on Friday released a tranche of letters sent to Scott encouraging him to OK the legislation (SB 106) known by the nickname “whiskey and Wheaties.”

They also include representatives of Whole Foods Market, the Distilled Spirits Council and the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.

It could be an uphill fight—as of Wednesday, the Governor’s Office reported 2,649 emails opposed to the bill and 315 supporting, as well as 3,245 people who signed a petition against the bill.

The office also took 177 calls against and 123 for, and 569 printed letters opposed and seven letters in favor—all from pro-bill coalition members, spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said.

The governor has till May 24 to sign the bill into law, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature. His office has said Scott will “review” the legislation.

It remain whether the “jobs” governor will be swayed by opponents—including independent liquor stores—who are calling the proposal a job-killer and asking Scott to nix it.

The bill passed both chambers on close margins: 21-17 in the Senate and a razor thin 58-57 in the House. Also, five House members who missed the vote voted ‘no’ after the roll call.

Filed every year since 2014, it removes the 82-year-old ‘wall of separation’ between hard liquor and other items enacted in Florida after Prohibition. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles.

Among other things, the bill requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and allows for a 5-year phase-in. It further calls for employees over 18 to check customers’ ID and approve sales of spirits by cashiers under 18.

Florida’s own ABC Fine Wines & Spirits also opposes the measure, as does the Publix supermarket chain, because of its investment in its many separate liquor stores.

Joe Negron seeks guidance on medical marijuana

Without using the words “Special Session,” Senate President Joe Negron is seeking “ideas” from fellow senators after the 2017 Legislative Session ended without a bill to implement the state’s medical marijuana constitutional amendment.

Negron sent a memo Thursday, released by his office, saying he “believe(s) we should consider the best way to meet our constitutional obligation to implement Amendment 2.”

Lawmakers failed to come to agreement on a bill that would implement the medical cannabis constitutional amendment passed in 2016. Just over 71 percent of statewide voters approved the measure.

An implementing bill gives guidance and instructions to state agencies on how to enforce state law.

“It was our mutual obligation to work together in good faith to find a principled middle ground on this important issue,” Negron wrote. “…Please feel free to contact me with your ideas on how to achieve this objective.”

The memo came a day after House Speaker Richard Corcoran called for a special legislative session during WFLA-FM radio’s “The Morning Show with Preston Scott.”

“I do believe and support the notion that we should come back and address and finalize dealing with medical marijuana,” Corcoran told Scott. “Does that mean a special session?” Scott asked. “It would, absolutely,” Corcoran said.

Earlier Thursday, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, urged for a Special Session on medicinal cannabis implementation and insurance issues during an appearance at the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce.

The full text of Negron’s memo follows:


As the Senate evaluates the best path forward on legislative implementation of Amendment 2 (Use of Marijuana for Debilitating Medical Conditions), I wanted to provide you with the context of actions and opportunities to date.

Under the leadership of Senator Bradley, the Senate passed an implementation bill that reflected three guiding principles shared by a strong majority of our membership. This Senate consensus can be described as follows.

First, the Legislature has a solemn duty to fully and fairly implement Amendment 2, which was passed with the support of over 71 percent of the voters in 2016.

Second, we should ensure medical marijuana is readily accessible to any Floridian who suffers from an enumerated debilitating condition, as determined by a licensed Florida physician. At the same time, the Senate did not support an unwarranted expansion of treatment centers until patient demand has been established.

Third, in order to foster a free market and affordable medicine, licenses and dispensaries should be structured in a way that promotes competition and quality.

The Senate Bill (SB 406 by Senator Bradley) also included sound provisions such as requiring dispensaries to look and feel like medical offices and providing that medicine certified by a physician would be available without arbitrary and unreasonable delay.

Of course, our colleagues in the House had their version of how an appropriate implementation bill would look. It was our mutual obligation to work together in good faith to find a principled middle ground on this important issue. I believe both the House and Senate did their best to accomplish this goal; however, we were unsuccessful in reaching agreement during the 2017 Regular Session.

Consistent with the wishes of most Senators, the final Senate position was to provide for immediate issuance of 10 new licenses, which we believe is fair to the seven incumbent providers (who are already authorized to cultivate, process, and dispense) and reflects the Senate commitment to marketplace competition.

In addition, to move in the direction of the House position, during informal negotiations the Senate offered to raise the dispensary cap to 15, which was five times the original cap of three in an earlier version of the Senate bill.

On the final day of Session, the House responded by setting its dispensary cap at 100 and providing a deadline for issuing new licenses of more than a year from now. Obviously, the Senate was not in a position to accept this House proposal. The medical cannabis bill then died in the House without being transmitted to the Senate for further consideration prior to Sine Die.

As I said on Monday evening, I believe we should consider the best way to meet our constitutional obligation to implement Amendment 2. Please feel free to contact me with your ideas on how to achieve this objective.

medical marijuana

Medical marijuana bill dead for 2017 Session

A bill to implement the 2016 medical marijuana constitutional amendment is dead, after the House amended the bill to increases the cap on retail facilities twentyfold.

The decision to send the bill back to the Senate kill the legislation (HB 1397), where senators were unwilling to increase the caps. Earlier in the day, Sen. Bill Galvano told POLITICO Florida the chance of passing was “slim to none, and I just saw slim leave town.”

The House voted 99-16 to send the bill back to Senate with an amendment that, among other things, caps the number of retail facilities per license holder at 100 shortly before 9 p.m.

That cap was 20 times higher than the number of retail facilities a licensed medical marijuana treatment center could have under the amended version of the bill the Senate sent back to the House on Thursday.

That version of the bill capped the number of stores per grower at five, and then allowed growers to add one additional store for every 75,000 patients that register with the medical use registry.

A lower cap, three retail locations per grower, was included in the Senate version of the bill (SB 406), and Sen. Rob Bradley, the sponsor of the Senate bill, said he believed proposal struck the right balance between allowing access and making sure there wasn’t “a dispensary on every corner.” Under the amended bill sent to the House on Thursday, there would have been more than 280 dispensaries in Florida by the time there were 300,000 qualified patients in Florida.

But the House did not include caps in any versions of its proposals, and Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, the House sponsor, said this week that he did not believe limiting storefronts “would provide necessary access.”

Rodrigues told his colleagues that the 100 store cap was a compromise, rationalizing that they started at no caps.

“Considering we started with no limitations and they started with three, moving from infinity to 100 … was a compromise,” he said.

The more conservative House has an ally in John Morgan, the Orlando Democrat who poured millions into the campaign, at least when it comes to caps. Morgan took to Twitter to rail against the decision, saying the caps “limit patient access.”

“I believe in a free market economy,” he tweeted this week. “FL House bill with NO caps is the PEOPLE’s choice!”

The amended version of the bill the Senate sent back Thursday also stripped language making medical marijuana tax exempt, Rodrigues said from the beginning the House wanted to include in its bill.

The amendment the House adopted Friday put the tax exemption back in place, but with a sunset provision. Rodrigues took a shot at the Senate, saying he thought the cost of the tax exemption would be shared across the both chambers, but it “appears the Senate has spent all of the money on member projects.”

Legislative inaction now leaves the fate of implementation in the hands of the Department of Health. Under the constitutional amendment, the department has until July to put rules in places.

Senate President Joe Negron said it would have been preferable for the Legislature to act.

“This is an industry that will grow, based on what we see happening in other states,” he said. “I would expect that you will regularly see that issue addressed. And I would expect that the next legislative session will be no exception.”

Bradley said he expects the issue will “be a hot topic when we return and do our business next year.”

“We’ll get there. If we’ve learned anything about these constitutional amendments, whether the Legislature acts or not is irrelevant,” he said. “There will be court challenges, because people will not like what we did when we act, and they won’t like our inaction either. So I would expect court challenges no matter what we did.”

__ Staff writer Michael Moline contributed to this.

Senate advances voucher expansion bill, goes to House for final vote

Florida senators, including some reluctant Democrats, voted to expanded two of Florida’s de facto education voucher programs that aid low-income students and those with disabilities.

The Tampa Bay Times reports HB 15 passed 27-11 Friday morning, on a vote where four Democrats joined Republicans. The bill returns to the House this afternoon for final approval of the Senate language before it reaches Gov. Rick Scott‘s desk.

The bill’s passage represents another victory for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who made the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship a priority in 2017. The scholarship, designed to help low-income, mostly minority students obtain private school scholarships, gives dollar-for-dollar tax breaks to businesses that donate to the program.

HB 15 raises the award amounts, allowing students in the program to advance to higher-priced private high schools.

Those Democratic senators signing onto the bill were hesitant about “diverting” more money to tax credits — which could instead go to public schools — but also did not want to vote against the Gardiner Scholarship, a program helping children with disabilities. Since both programs were put in a single bill, linking the Gardiner Scholarship to tax-credit awards, lawmakers were forced to vote on both at once.

“The Gardiner Scholarship program is a fantastic program, so I want desperately to be able to support this bill because of those provisions,” Lake Worth Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens told the Times. “But I am philosophically opposed to corporate tax vouchers and diverting money away from our general funds, which could be used to improve our public-school system.”

Supporters of HB 15, like Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young, defend tax credit scholarships as helping children “who have no hope without it.”

Democrats breaking with the caucus to approve HB 15 include Daphne Campbell of Miami Shores, Bill Montford of Tallahassee, Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg and Linda Stewart of Orlando.

 

Senate approves amended medical marijuana bill, sends back to House for final vote

The Florida Senate voted 31-7 to approve an amended version of a medical marijuana bill, sending it back to the House for a final vote on Friday.

But with the clock running out on the 2017 Legislative Session, the fate of the proposal remains unclear. The Senate amended the House bill (HB 1397) to limit the number of retail facilities licensed growers can have and remove a provision that would have made medical marijuana exempt from sales tax.

Sen. Rob Bradley, the Fleming Island Republican who carried the Senate’s implementing bill (SB 406), acknowledged the change marked a difference of opinions between the two chambers.

“I will tell you, this is a disagreement we have at this time,” he said.

The bill approved Thursday initially caps the number of retail facilities a licensed medical marijuana treatment center can have at five. The bill allows growers to add one additional store for every 75,000 patients that registers with the medical marijuana use registry.

Bradley said the Senate believes the new language dealing with caps strikes the right balance of allowing access, but making sure there “won’t be a dispensary on every corner.” Under this scenario, Bradley said once there are 300,000 qualified patients in the state, there will be more than 280 dispensaries across the state.

The House bill did not include caps, and Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, the House sponsor, has spoken out against caps.

The amendment also removes a provision included in the original House bill that would have made medical marijuana and medical marijuana delivery devices tax exempt. Rodrigues has long said the House measure would not include a tax on medical marijuana, saying he wanted to honor advocates requests to treat “medical marijuana like medicine.”

The revised version of the bill also calls on the state to issue 10 additional license this year. The state would then be required to issue five additional licenses within 6 months of 75,000 patients registering with the compassionate use registry.

While the bill passed, some members continued to express concern about the measure. Sen. Jeff Clemens, who voted for the bill, was among those who expressed concern that the bill prohibits patient from smoking, noting that it is the only way some patients can get relief.

“This has been the issue I probably struggled with the most,” said Bradley, who said research has shown inhaling smoke into the lungs is not a healthy act. “We shouldn’t slow walk it, because that’s not the Constitution demands, but we should proceed cautiously. It is a feature of pacing.”

The bill could be taken up by the House on Friday. Although session has been extended, legislative leaders have said the only issue to be discussed on Monday will be the 2017-18 budget.

That means Friday is likely the last chance lawmakers will have to pass implementing language this Legislative Session. The House is scheduled to go into Session at 1 p.m.

“All of this effort is about the patients, and too much time and discussion and focus has been about other things,” said Bradley. “At the end of the day, what this is about is some of our sickest, fellow citizens getting something they are entitled to receive.”

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