Florida Legislature – Florida Politics
Lantana Democrat Lori Berman

Lori Berman’s special election victory certified

Lantana Democrat Lori Berman’s special election victory for a Palm Beach County Senate district, which moved her up from the Florida House, was quickly certified Tuesday.

The Elections Canvassing Commission — comprised of Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — certified the April 10 election results in which Berman defeated Lake Worth Republican Tami Donnally. Secretary of State Ken Detzner oversaw the brief telephonic meeting in which all three members of the commission participated.

Berman captured 75 percent of the vote for the Democratic-leaning Senate District 31 seat that was vacated in October by Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat who stepped down after admitting to an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.

Berman’s Senate term will expire after the 2020 Legislative Session.

Less than 10 percent of the 312,967 registered voters in the district participated in the special general election, according to the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections website.

Berman’s District 90 Palm Beach County House seat will be filled in the November general election.

Berman’s election to the 40-member Senate leaves the upper chamber with one empty chair. The lone vacancy, District 16 in Pinellas and Pasco counties, will be filled in November. Former Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater, resigned from the seat in December, following a sexual-harassment investigation.

NRA gunning for GOP school bill backers

The National Rifle Association and its Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, are taking aim at Republican lawmakers who supported a school-safety bill that included gun-control measures.

In a letter to members of the NRA and the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, posted online Wednesday by Ammoland, Hammer focused her wrath on GOP lawmakers — particularly Sen. Doug Broxson of the Panhandle town of Gulf Breeze — who supported the sweeping measure (SB 7026), which was rushed into law shortly after the Feb. 14 deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

“We supported the school safety measures in the bill: 1.) Hardening the schools, 2.) Armed security in our schools, and 3.) Keeping guns out of the hands of the dangerous mentally ill,” Hammer wrote. “We did NOT support the gratuitous gun control provisions added to the bill by REPUBLICANS. Those gun control measures are: 1.) A ban on the purchase of rifles and shotguns by adults under age 21, 2.) A 3-day waiting period on rifles and shotguns, 3.) A ban on the sale, transfer & possession of bump stocks & accessories that increase the rate of fire of a semiautomatic firearm.”

The letter contends Republicans who voted for the bill — signed into law by GOP Gov. Rick Scott — “lacked the courage to uphold their oath of office” and that Broxson, the “linchpin” as the bill was approved in a 20-18 vote, “caved to threats and promises from Senate leadership and switched his vote and sold you out.”

Hammer noted that “A” or “A+” grades of most of the Republicans in the Senate and House who voted for the bill are being re-evaluated.

“When they ask for your support, when they ask you to volunteer in their campaigns, when they ask for your donations, when they ask for your votes, think long and hard about what they had done. …,” Hammer wrote.

Honor roll: State legislators receive high marks from Florida Chamber

The grades are in, and from the perspective of those pushing for a more fertile business climate in the Sunshine State, the Legislature is getting better — but there’s still work to be done.

Each year the Florida Chamber grades state legislators after tabulating votes on measures backed by the pro-business group. The 2018 Legislative Report Card, released Thursday, showed significant improvement from the 2017 Session.

Forty-seven percent of legislators earned an A — that’s up from a mere 9 percent in 2017. The average GPA for both chambers came in at 78 percent, up from last year’s 73 percent.

The House performed better than the Senate; 64 representatives earned an A and the chamber’s GPA came to 79 percent, compared to eight A-earning senators and an average GPA of 74 percent for the upper chamber. House Speaker Richard Corcoran earned an A. Senate President Joe Negron earned a C.

A news release from the Chamber attributed the higher overall scores to “cutting red tape, chipping away at Florida-only taxes, funding for economic development, tourism marketing and infrastructure investments, and targeted education reforms.”

Unresolved matters, the Chamber contends, include reforming assignment of benefits and lawsuit abuses, stabilizing workers’ compensation and increasing investments in Florida’s workforce colleges.

“While there is always room for improvement and more work to be done, this legislative session’s grades showed many legislators took steps in the right direction on several policy fronts and voted to prevent harmful ideas from becoming law. We look forward to a session when every legislator earns an ‘A’ and Florida’s competitiveness outranks every other state,” said David Hart, executive vice president of the Chamber. 

The grades shouldn’t come as a surprise to lawmakers. The Chamber released its legislative priorities ahead of the 2018 Session and hand-delivered its agenda to every legislator. The group alerted lawmakers prior to each time it intended to factor a vote into its report card. In total, the Chamber scored 2,900 votes.

Along with the report card, the chamber announced its Distinguished Advocate award winners. The recognition is reserved for a handful of legislators who fought tirelessly for the passage of pro-business legislation – no matter how difficult – and furthered the Florida Chamber’s goals of securing Florida’s future through job creation and economic development,” according to the Chamber. 

Fifteen lawmakers received the distinction this year. Most were recognized for their pro-business efforts. St. Petersburg Rep. Ben Diamond, the lone Democrat on the list, was honored for championing a lawsuit-limiting amendment. Incoming chamber leaders, Republicans Rep. Jose Oliva and Sen. Bill Galvanowere recognized for their roles in championing school safety measures in the wake of the Parkland tragedy.

“We’re pleased to recognize members of the Florida Legislature with Distinguished Advocate awards who had the courage to put free enterprise principles for job creation above special interest,” said Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson.

Other honorees include:

– Rep. Manny Diaz

– Rep. Joe Gruters

– Rep. Clay Ingram

– Rep. Mike La Rosa

– Rep. Scott Plakon

– Rep. Holly Raschein

– Rep. Paul Renner

– Rep. Jay Trumbull

– Sen. Dennis Baxley

– Sen. David Simmons

– Sen. Wilton Simpson

– Sen. Kelli Stargel

The fight for LGBT civil rights will return next legislative session

Those backing a move to include LGBT protections under the 1992 Florida Civil Rights Act have a message for legislative leadership: We’ll be back.

Just nine days into the 2018 Legislative Session, 40 percent of the Legislature had publicly supported bills that would have codified in statutes nondiscrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bipartisan momentum grew through the 60-day lawmaking process; support for the bills this year peaked at 69 Republicans and Democrats, or 45 percent of the Legislature.

But HB 347 and SB 66, known as the Competitive Workforce Act, or CWA, didn’t receive a single committee hearing before Session wrapped.

That means, under current state law, it’s still legal to discriminate against LGBT individuals in employment, housing and public accommodations. Statewide civil rights protections only prevent discrimination based upon race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age, handicap, or marital status.

Meanwhile, at the local level, 12 municipalities have updated human rights ordinances to include LGBT civil rights protections. In total, it’s estimated that 60 percent of Florida’s population is protected by such provisions, meaning a majority of Floridians might not be conscious of the lack of a state law protecting the LGBT community.

In early January, St. Petersburg Democratic Rep. Ben Diamond, who sponsored the House version of the CWA this year, said he suspects most of the population is unaware. 

“When I talk to folks in my district on this bill, they’re surprised to learn that Florida law does not already protect LGBT individuals in these important areas,” Diamond said during a Capitol news conference.

Outside of the Legislature, there’s a movement to provide universal LGBT protections. Arguably the loudest voice is Florida Competes, a coalition of more than 450 local businesses that claims passing the Act would foster a better business climate in the Sunshine State. Fortune 500 companies AT&T, CSX, Darden Restaurants, Marriott, NextEra Energy, Office Depot, Raymond James, Tech Data, Uber, Walt Disney World Resort and Wells Fargo also are involved in the coalition.

In the halls of the Capitol, Florida Competes has brought in a lobbying force to articulate what benefits LGBT protections could bring to the state.

In an interview with Florida Politics, Gray Robinson lobbyist Joseph R. Salzverg described his role in advocating for the CWA. He’s worked on the issue for the past two years. 

“With any legislation that could be perceived as controversial, it often takes several sessions to thoroughly brief the Legislature and advocate for the need for the policy,” Salzverg told Florida Politics, explaining the CWA’s stagnation this year.

He said those against the CWA claim such protections could lead to an uptick in lawsuits, effectively harming businesses. He said there’s also rhetoric floating around that employers do not want to be restricted by LGBT protections.

“Both those arguments aren’t valid,” Salzverg said. He pointed to the sheer amount of businesses backing the CWA as evidence of widespread support in the private sector. He said the legislation also would safeguard against abusing legal remedies.

“The Florida Commission on Human Relations will first investigate the claim of discrimination and make a probable cause determination, which in turn weeds out meritless claims,” Salzverg said, explaining pockets of the language in the CWA. He added that state law would also limit excessive damages, should a discrimination case be won.

In arguing the benefits of the CWA, one of the strongest talking points Salzverg and Florida Competes has is that the law would make Florida’s business environment more attractive to larger companies like Amazon, which is seeking a new headquarters and has whittled its possible locations down to 20 — only one of which, Miami, is in Florida.

Rep. Diamond and other legislators, along with Florida Competes warned the Legislature this year that companies like Amazon consider each area’s legal framework when seeking new locations. They claim the lack of comprehensive statewide discrimination protections might scare off global business.

Salzverg said companies are attracted to such protections because it increases the opportunity to “recruit and retain a talented workforce.”

“This is especially true with certain industries like those in the technology space, which offer high paying jobs which will greatly benefit Florida,” added Salzverg. 

The next Legislative Session begins March 2019. In the time between, Salzverg and Florida Competes will continue their efforts to develop and familiarize lawmakers with the benefits associated with the CWA. Sixty-percent of the co-sponsors this year were freshman legislators — a sign that not only will the CWA return, but that support for the issue will remain.

It’s just a matter of getting the bills into committee.

“We are very hopeful that the Competitive Workforce Act will be heard in committees next year given the vast amount of support we have with almost 70 members of the Legislature,” Salzverg said.

State colleges take stock after ‘challenging’ Session

While state universities and public schools have seen significant funding increases in the last two years, Florida’s state college system has had less success in securing money in the annual budget process.

Last year, lawmakers cut $30 million from the system’s overall budget of more than $2 billion. In the newly approved budget for the 2018-2019 academic year, the Legislature restored $6.7 million of the cut.

But most of the other major budget requests from the system, which includes 28 state and community colleges, did not win support from the Legislature.

That included a $75 million initiative to produce more “workforce” degrees and certificates to meet regional economic needs, a $50 million plan to recruit and retain faculty and a $67 million initiative for counseling and other services to help students complete their degrees in a timely manner.

The Legislature rejected the state colleges’ request for $40 million in state performance funding, which would have been a $10 million increase.

In contrast, the new state budget increases performance funding in the university system by $20 million and provides $91 million, a $20 million increase, to help the schools recruit “world-class” faculty and researchers. The overall $5 billion university budget will increase by $139 million in 2018-2019.

Ava Parker, president of Palm Beach State College and head of the policy and advocacy group for the 28 college presidents, said she supports increased funding for the universities but questions the funding strategy for colleges.

Parker, who served more than a decade on the Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities, noted the role that state colleges play in providing students for the universities.

Some two-thirds of Florida high school graduates who went into the higher-education system in the 2014-2015 academic year enrolled in state colleges, which serve about 800,000 full- and part-time students each year, according to the state Department of Education. The data also show a majority of the juniors and seniors in the university system are former state college students.

Parker, who is scheduled to become chairwoman of the state colleges’ Council of Presidents in June, said not adequately funding the college system could have repercussions for universities.

“It would appear that you are actually crippling the universities in some way in that you’re not supporting the foundation for those students who will very soon be your students,” Parker said in an interview with The News Service of Florida.

“While I applaud the Legislature for their emphasis on higher education, and particularly the universities, I think they’re short-sighted when they do not provide the resources to prepare such a large percentage of our (future university students),” she said.

A factor in the Legislature’s reluctance to back many of the state-college budget initiatives was a two-year struggle between the college system and Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who pushed several major policy changes, including a cap on baccalaureate degrees, that the colleges opposed.

Lawmakers passed those policy changes in legislation that Gov. Rick Scott vetoed in 2017. Scott argued the changes would undermine the college system.

A Senate bill (SB 540) with the policy changes, which also included a statewide oversight board for the college system, stalled in the 2018 Session. The consequences were that Senate leaders were not likely to look favorably on many of the college initiatives.

A minor but telling example of that was that the House passed a bill (HB 619) that would have let Florida Keys Community College and North Florida Community College drop the “community” label, which has been done by the majority of state colleges over time. But the bill never received a hearing in the Senate.

Parker said it was important for the colleges to oppose proposed policy changes that the presidents believed could hurt the system but that it has made the last two years in the legislative process “challenging.”

“I think it has been challenging for us because there have really been two sides to the coin. There is the budget and there is policy,” she said.

On a positive note, Parker said college presidents are supporting a measure (Proposal 83) now before the Florida Constitution Revision Commission that would provide constitutional authority to the state college system.

Parker and other presidents have said embedding the state college system in the Constitution would put the colleges on equal footing with universities and public schools, which are already authorized in the document.

Gwen Graham says she’d support local governments defying 2011 gun laws preemption

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham announced Tuesday that if she’s elected Governor she would support local governments such as Weston and Coral Gables that seek to defy the state’s 2011 law forbidding local gun ordinances.

Such a position could put Graham at odds with the Florida Legislature and also potentially with the Attorney General over who takes which sides, should legal battles begin over local gun ordinances. In 2011, Florida passed a law, signed by Gov. Rick Scott, that preempts all local gun laws to the state, and sets stiff penalties, including personal fines, legal liability and threats of removals from office for local officials who seek, retain or vote for local gun laws.

Graham on Tuesday pledged legal resources as Governor to support local governments challenging the state’s firearm preemption law.

“Following the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas, cities and counties across the state want to act where the Legislature and Rick Scott have failed — but Tallahassee politicians have trampled on home rule in an outrageous attempt to block local governments from banning weapons of war from our streets and protecting their citizens from gun violence,” Graham said in a news release. “As Governor, I will work with cities and counties to restore local control and their ability to protect their communities by directing my Office of General Counsel to assist local governments challenging the state’s preemption law.”

It was unclear how that would manifest itself, and whether it would put her in legal battles with the Attorney General. Certainly, the Governor would be in position to refuse to remove local politicians from office, as the law would demand.

Graham, the former congresswoman from Tallahassee, faces Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Winter Park businessman Chris King in seeking the Aug. 28 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Leading Republican candidates Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis are both staunch opponents of gun restrictions at local or state levels.

To date, the statute has been upheld by Florida courts, preventing municipalities from enforcing gun regulations. But Gillum has stood up with Tallahassee to keep its law on the books, a point he has used to argue that he is the one Democratic gubernatorial candidate who has actually fought for tighter gun control and won. However, the Tallahassee law is not being enforced.

Gillum’s campaign responded to her declaration Tuesday by accusing her of having an election year conversion on guns while Gillum has consistently fought for gun laws for many years.

“I’m glad the Congresswoman’s election year conversion on guns includes backing Mayor Gillum’s fight with the gun lobby. It would have been nice for her to support his fight when she was a sitting Member of Congress. Democrats can’t trust her on this issue, while the Mayor’s consistently fought for gun safety,” Geoff Burgan, Gillum’s communications director, said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Following the mass shootings at Pulse in 2016 and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in February, some city officials are talking about defying the state, seeking to re-establish local gun ordinances.

Coral Gables Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli proposed a city-wide ban on assault weapons last month, and Weston Mayor Daniel Stermer is urging cities and counties across Florida to join a coordinated effort challenging the state’s preemption law.

“The NRA spent $300,000 to try to defeat me a few years ago – they lost,” Graham stated in the news release, referring to her 2014 election over incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland in Florida’s 2nd Congressional District. “They’ve also spent untold millions buying off Tallahassee politicians and trying to destroy local control. When I’m governor, they will lose again. If Tallahassee politicians fail to pass common sense gun safety, I’ll make sure local governments can step in and do the job the NRA sellouts in Tallahassee refuse to.”

In addition to defending home rule, Graham has also released a full gun safety plan that includes banning the sale of military-style assault weapons, implementing universal background checks, and investing more in mental health to prevent future tragedies.

Rick Scott signs 2018-19 state budget, releases veto list

Gov. Rick Scott signed his final state budget Friday, two days after the Legislature sent it to him to review.

The $88.7 billion fiscal plan – the largest in state history – landed on Scott’s desk Wednesday, but the governor did not approve it all.

He vetoed $64 million worth of line items, the smallest being a $25,000 trust fund appropriation to the Florida Housing Finance Corp. for “affordable housing programs.”

One area targeted by Scott in his vetoes was more than $29 million in local road projects, which Scott said were funded outside the Department of Transportation’s normal evaluation process. The largest veto was $7 million for a road project in Lake County.

The budget (HB 5001) approved by lawmakers included the $400 million school safety plan crafted after the Parkland mass shooting with $67 million for the controversial program that would arm school staff and train them for active shooter situations and $25 million that would go toward a memorial and the demolishing of the building where the massacre occurred.

No funding in that plan was chopped from the 2018-19 blueprint for state spending.

“Following the tragedy in Parkland where 17 died, we came together as a state and I was proud to sign the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which invests nearly $375 million to keep our students and communities safe so this never happens again,” Scott wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Ken Detzner.

The 452-page budget passed by the Legislature also included $100.8 million for the Florida Forever land preservation program, $130 million in Medicaid funding for nursing homes, and nearly $90 million in last-minute spending that included hurricane-related projects to repair infrastructure at universities and charter schools.

Scott’s $64 million in vetoes was lower than the $69 million he eliminated in 2014, when he was running for re-election. Scott, a Naples Republican, is term limited this year. He’s widely expected to challenge incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

“Typical politicians think about their next job. I’m focused on this job,” Scott told reporters Sunday after the Legislature’s ‘sine die’ ceremony. “I’m glad we had a very successful Session. I’ll think about my future in the next few weeks.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this post.

Annie Jae Filkowski: Fake women’s health centers deceive women

In March 2014, I was 16 years old and scared because there was a chance I was experiencing an unexpected pregnancy.

Due to a lack of sex education throughout my years in public school and fear of asking my mom about the birds and the bees, I was ignorant about sexual health and forms of contraception. I was anxious, confused and didn’t know where to go.

Every day on my way to school I would pass a Community Pregnancy Center, sometimes called a CPC. I did not know much about this facility, except it advertised on the side of its building: “FREE PREGNANCY TESTING.” I thought maybe this was a legitimate health facility that could help me.

So, after a few days of mustering up the courage, I entered the center with a friend.

I learned quickly this was not a legitimate health care provider — even though the Florida Legislature wants you to think it is. These fake women’s health centers advertise free pregnancy testing and pregnancy-options education, but they oppose abortion and contraception and therefore will not provide comprehensive counseling or referrals.

The Florida Legislature passed House Bill 41, legislation that would permanently send millions in tax dollars to these fake women’s health centers that oppose abortion and judge, shame and intentionally try to trick women.

Their advertising and outward appearances are frequently calculated to deceive women into believing they will be able to access a full range of reproductive health care services, which is exactly why I walked in. I assumed at first the women at the front desk were nurses.

They asked why I was there and responded in an almost sympathetic manner when I shared my story. They then took me to a room that looked more like a therapist’s office than an exam room and included two couches, a tissue box and a Bible.

A woman came in and asked me questions such as: “If you are pregnant, do you know who the father is?” “What’s his full name?” “What’s the extent of your relationship?”

She added, “You aren’t supposed to have sex until marriage, but if you do, you should be in love and in a committed relationship.”

These questions were shaming, and I struggled to understand how a legitimate health care provider could operate like this.

Then, before she would give me back my pregnancy-test results she asked me another question: “What is your religious affiliation?” I was shocked, answered the question, reminded her why I was there and asked her for the result of my pregnancy test.

It was negative.

After, she began a lesson on abstinence and shared how I still can be “saved” despite the “mistakes” I have made. She gave me brochures about abstinence, Christianity, adoption and medically inaccurate information about abortion.

At the end of it all, she reminded me that she had all of my private information and would be notifying my family of my visit. So much for patient confidentiality.

I oppose HB 41 because I care deeply about women and feel no person should be lied to or feel judged or shamed when accessing health care. When faced with the possibility of an unintended pregnancy, women deserve unbiased, medically accurate information about all of their options.

We should not be judged, shamed and threatened. Our elected officials should not be legitimizing these fake clinics, nor should they be sending them millions in tax dollars, a scheme HB 41 makes permanent in law.

The best way to prevent unintended pregnancies is with contraception and medically accurate information around sexual health. However, this legislation denies women the full range of reproductive health care, is politically motivated and hurtful to women and families.

If Gov. Rick Scott cares about being a good steward of our tax dollars and supports deception-free, comprehensive, medically accurate women’s health care, he will veto HB 41.

___

Annie Jae Filkowski is a student at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, where she majors in political science and law studies.

Six days after saying he was out, Larry Lee reconsiders re-election

In the midst of an emotional last week of Session, a tearful state Rep. Larry Lee Jr. told his colleagues in the Florida House in a 40-minute speech that he would not seek re-election.

Six days later, he is reconsidering that decision.

He is rethinking things because he says his phone has not stopped ringing. And now, his mother has recommended to “close his ears” to those talking to him, search for solitude and figure out what to do.

Lee told Florida Politics he was not in the “best frame of mind” when he decided to pull the plug on his political career last week.

The Port St. Lucie Democrat was emotional and frustrated with the legislative process in the wake of the Parkland school massacre that left 17 dead and several wounded. Lee was one of the lawmakers who wanted to vote down the controversial gun and school safety measure and have Gov. Rick Scott call for a special session to resolve the issue.

He told colleagues he was resigning on the day the House would vote on the contentious proposal.

“That morning it all culminated,” Lee said. “It took those kids from Parkland to push me. I felt like we let them down. Some of our members said we should give them something, but I wanted to give them more.”

Two days before he made the public decision on the House floor, House Speaker Richard Corcoran called him into his office and asked him to take some time to consider not leaving his post.

Corcoran also gave him homework: to read the Book of Romans and the Bible verse John 8:32, which reads: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” But Lee never did his homework.

“I was afraid that it might touch me and that I might want to stay,” said Lee, a religious man.

He then took a couple of days to mull it over, and with a “heavy heart” he sent a letter to Corcoran and told colleagues it was time for him to leave. A move he said lifted “tremendous weight off his shoulders.”

Lee has served in the Legislature since 2012 and admits that he has never wanted to be a politician, and even says he was naive to believe he could spark change from Tallahassee. But here he is, debating whether he should stay in the game.

He expects to reach a final decision in a couple of weeks, but admits that he has read the verse Corcoran asked him to read and he “still does not know the truth.”

Florida Realtors laud lawmakers for cutting business rent tax

After the Legislature passed an $88.7 billion budget Sunday, Florida Realtors are heaping praise on lawmakers for including $31 million in cuts to the business rent tax and $110 million for affordable housing projects.

“I’m so proud of our membership for responding to our call for action to cut the business rent tax,” said Bill Martin, the chief executive officer of Florida Realtors. “They stayed engaged throughout the process on this and many other of our key issues,” Martin added, “realtors absolutely rock!”

Martin said thousands of letters were sent to lawmakers urging them to support additional cuts to the business rent tax and tax credits for businesses that pay that tax. And it did.

Other measures passed by the Legislature during the 2018 legislative session that will benefit realtors and property owners include House Bill 1011, which revises flood insurance notices. If signed into law, flood insurers may see more people purchasing flood insurance coverage.

The organization also lauded the Legislature for allocating about $500,000 to prevent unlicensed real estate activity.

Other issues the interest group was pushing but did not get were proposals that would have limited control over vacation rentals, like Airbnb, and would have brought Assignment of Benefits reform to the state.

An issue the organization wants to get next Session has to do with remote notaries, with the intent of allowing documents needed to close a sale to be notarized even when the notary or person signing the documents are not physically in the same room.

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