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Public Service Commission Under Fire

September 30th, 2014 by flanews

Energy companies have been able to do just about whatever they want with ratepayer money in Florida, but as Matt Galka tells us, legislators are starting to cry foul, and it could make a difference in your wallet.

Florida’s Public Service Commission and the utility companies they oversee are coming under fire from both sides of the aisle. Clearwater Republican State Senator Jack Latvala pointed at the state’s second largest utility, Duke Energy, as a reason why he had to introduce legislation that tightens the screws on utility companies.

“It begins to put a framework that the utility has to live within when dealing with their customers,” said Sen. Latvala.

Duke has collected billions of dollars from customers for nuclear plants that were never built. Their latest meter reading gaffe resulted in overcharging and a near one million dollar refund for consumers. The Public Service Commission will discuss refunding customer’s nuclear cost recovery fees on Thursday.

Duke collected $54 million dollars for nuclear equipment that was never used. Democratic State Representative Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda was one of the first to call for a repeal of the fees.

“Everyone’s been pretty quiet about this but I think the people have actually let their voice be heard. There’s now this rush to do something to reform the PSC, get the utility bills under control and get the utility companies under control,” said Rep. Rehwinkel Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee).

Consumer counsel Charles Rehwinkel is asking for the PSC to order Duke to refund the equipment money to customers.

“No money was spent, the law doesn’t allow for customers to pay an advanced recovery for phantom costs,” said Rehwinkel.

Utility companies pump millions of dollars into campaigns for both Democrats and Republicans that have a hand in selecting Public Service Commission members.  Part of the legislation proposed Tuesday would put a regulation on lobbyists working with people connected to the PSC.

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Prepaid Costs Dropping

September 30th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

The letters are in the mail and checks soon will be to more than 40 thousand Florida families that will see lower Prepaid college costs. The lower fees are a direct result of a new law.

Nate Friedel of Tampa is one of 110 thousand students attending a Florida college on a pre paid scholarship. “I know for my family it would be a lot more difficult. It’s nice not having to worry about the finances for college…as much.”

Now letters announcing a drop in costs are going out to 22 thousand families who purchased a PrePaid plan in the last six years. This five year old plan is seeing  monthly costs drop from 189 dollars to just 108.

18 thousand families who paid in full will see refunds ranging from three dollars to as much as 28 thousand. Lower payments kick in with this months payment. But for those getting a refund, they’ll have to wait until late October or early November.

PrePaid spokesperson Shannon Colavecchio says the drop is a direct result of legislation limiting future tuition hikes. “It allowed us to say, okay, those projections we had made about college cost are actually going to go down, so we can lower the price of the plan.”

The lower tuition was championed by Rick Scott, who said during his State of the State in March “We have to make it more affordable”.

He crowed about it when it passed on May 2nd. “Lower tuition for every Florida Family”

And The Republican Party has made the drop a central theme of Scott’s reelection with a TV spot slamming Charlie Crist and promoting the Governor.  “Now Governor Rick Scott is making college more affordable” chimes the ad.

So, it is no surprise Scott also included a letter to plan participants letting them know he signed the legislation making tuition more affordable,

Overall 200 million is being refunded and another 700 million won’t be collected under the lower prices. People who purchase a plan when enrollment opens on October 15th, and before the end of the year will have the 50 dollar application fee waived.

 

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GOP Shadowing Crist

September 29th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

For more than two months, GOP inspired protestors have been showing up at Charlie Crist events. The shadowing of a candidate isn’t new, but the level of intensity is unprecedented in Florida politics.

It began in July…The Republican Party of Florida sent a handful of sign waving protestors to a Charlie Crist event in the State Capitol.

Tre Fenske was at first a little unsure of why he was there. When we asked, he turned to the person next to him, who offered “To protest Charlie. To protest Charlie.”

So, when Crist arrived at the event, we asked… “Ah, no. I don’t get greeted by that very often. How are you?” Crist asked demonstrators.

But the not so often has turned into almost every day.

When Charlie Crist launched a school but tour, protestors greeted him at every stop along with a surrogate. This day it was State Rep. Matt Gaetz doing the shadowing. He was asked about his role in the increasing negativity of the campaign. “Well, this is politics and we don’t pitch underhand. Certainly Charlie Crist knows that.”

Both sides admit to using video trackers. Last week, the protestors showed up at a Crist fundraiser, at the home of Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant.

Gil Ziffer was one of the attendees. “And then there was someone shooting video of me, and there were people arranged, clearly shooting video of our license plates. And it was something I hadn’t experienced before.”

Q: “What did you think at the time?”

“I wasn’t bothered by it, but clearly there was an intent to intimidate. In other words, you’re hear and people are going to find out you are here.”

The Republican Party of Florida declined to address trackers directly. But it did  provide a statement criticizing Crist and Democrats.

And those who have shown up to offer analysis of Crist events includes State Senator John Thrasher, recently named the next President of FSU, the GOP party chairwoman, and even Lt. Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

RPOF Statement: “Allison Tant is only distracting from the disgusting domestic violence attack made by the head of her party against Rick Scott. We’re still waiting for Charlie Crist to denounce the outrageous statement made by the chair of the DNC.” –Susan Hepworth, RPOF Communications Director

 

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That Ought to be A Law…Now It Is

September 29th, 2014 by flanews

Hundreds of bills are proposed each year in Florida, but just a few become laws. As Matt Galka tells us, a group of high school students passed legislation in 2014 on their very first try, and it’s a stern crackdown on predator teachers that goes into effect this week.

It started off in committees and went all the way to the floor of both Florida’s House and Senate.

The Stop Harassing Underage Teens Act became a law thanks to some students from Tampa’s Armwood High School.  The group was fed up with some of the punishments handed down, so they came up with a law to clamp down on authority figures committing the acts.

“We would really like to see this law be implemented into situations where if a teacher is having inappropriate relations with a student, to see that this law is hit hard and they are truly convicted properly like they should be,” said Simone Girard after the bill passed.

About 50 teachers a year lose their licenses in Florida because of sexual misconduct with students.

“I think it’s very important that we send a strong message to that small, very small percentage of our teachers, who may either be thinking about doing something inappropriate with a student, to recognize that this isn’t going to be a minimal crime, it’s going to be an enhanced crime,” said the bill’s Senate sponsor Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland).

Notorious Florida teacher Debra Lafave got three years house arrest after having sex with a 14 year old student 10 years ago.  The law may not stop crimes like that, but it will increase jail time and fine amounts.

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Degrees Not Debt

September 26th, 2014 by flanews

No More Student Debt, that’s the rallying cry from students around the country. As Matt Galka tells us, a new campaign here in Florida is looking for a solution to the problem.

Students are fed up with the sky high loan amounts and interest rates they’re shackled with upon graduating.

The National Education Association launched the “Degrees not Debt” campaign on Florida A & M’s Campus.  Chelsey Herrig helps coordinate the program around the country.

“33 million people are in debt right now. The Government will make about 1 trillion dollars off the debt,” said Herrig.

The average student will be about 30 grand in the hole upon graduation.  Daisia Harmon says she’ll be one of them.

“It’s a concern for me, it’s my future, not my parents, and I’m in graduate school so it’s becoming more of a reality,” said Harmon, a FAMU grad student.

Professor Elizabeth Davenport says her students need more options – both going into and leaving college.

“We want to see ways of eliminating debt, maybe changing the percentage of interest rates, pushing for more grants because you know in Florida we’re eliminating them,” said Davenport.

A bill being pushed by Democrats allowing for student loan refinancing has stalled in Washington.

Cuts to Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship program have not helped the debt problem.  It’s estimated that in three years, just over 83,000 students will be eligible for the program, down from 127,000 students this year.

 

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Ethics Forum Fights Corruption

September 26th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida was ranked the worst state in the nation for corruption in 2012. Lawmaker responded by requiring state and local officials to undergo ethics training. A statewide session was held in Orlando on This week.

From prosecutors to sherifs, tax collectors and even the Tampa Port Authority, more than 150 constitutional officers and their staff are getting a day and a half of ethics training.

Jeff Hendry, Executive Director of the Florida Institute of Government, which sponsored the training told participants “It is going to be no shortage of information”

On top of the list is living up to the promise of open government and making records public. Both can be tricky subjects. One of the biggest problems for elected officials is new technology, they think they can communicate on private email accounts or via text messages, without breaking the law, but that’s not the case.

Pat Gleason from the Office of the Attorney General explained that “There’s no special standard for these particular communications, they’re subject to disclosure just like paper records.”

One objective here is to keep public officials from making stupid mistakes. Virlindia Doss says the majority of cases she sees at the Ethics Commission are because of a lack of information.“Some cases are willful, but there are a lot of cases where people just didn’t understand what it was they were supposed to do, so this is a good remedy for that problem” says Doss.

The training was mandated by lawmakers after Florida was ranked by Indiana University as the most corrupt state in the nation. It has since fallen to tenth. Dan Krassner of Integrity  Florida says the ethics training sets a tone from the top, but  there is still much to be done. “We need more open budgets and spending so the public can follow their money.”

Four hours of annual training on open records and he sunshine law are now required for Constitutional officers and their top staff. Municipal officials get the same requirement next year.

The Ethics Commission investigates about two hundred cases a year. More investigations would be likely, but the Commission must wait for a complaint and can not initiate its own investigations.

 

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Pot Politics

September 25th, 2014 by flanews

Voters will be deciding the fate of a broad based medical marijuana law in a little over 40 days.  As Matt Galka tells us, one group’s crusade against the drug might be gaining traction.

The Don’t Let Florida Go to Pot Coalition has been listing off negative effects of marijuana all year.

“Amendment 2 not only legalizes the sale of pot, it also legalizes an entire marijuana industry,” said Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger.

The Coalition says their anti-marijuana message is working, and they point to recent poll numbers as proof. The latest survey of likely voters shows Amendment 2 support at 53% with about 15%.  The measure needs 60% of the vote to pass.

“The idea is to have a grass roots campaign, county by county, community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, to educate people. The more we educate people of the loopholes in the amendment, I think is having a positive effect on the election,” said Eslinger.

The coalition envisions a pot shop on every corner if the amendment passes.  Dr. Michael Forsthoefel says he doesn’t see Docs writing kids prescriptions for weed, but it would make it more available.

Michael Forsthoefel, M.D./Internal Medicine Specialist

“The amendment, as I see it, is just a way to get it available, it’s dangerous for kids, and I see it as a high risk of abuse potentially,” said Dr. Forsthoefel.

Another Doctor in the group, James Harrell, is married to a state representative.  He says his wife’s biggest concern is that people think closing a loophole would be an easy fix.

“You’re not going to change it without another constitutional amendment,” said Dr. Harrell.

10 other states have left medical marijuana up to voters who approved it. In five of the votes, the drug had 60 percent approval going in to the election.

The Florida legislature passed a bill earlier this year allowing for low grade medical marijuana to be used as medicine. The legislation is having trouble getting off the ground thanks to rule challenges and lawsuits.

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Freeze That Credit

September 24th, 2014 by flanews

Parents have a new tool to help protect their kids financial future.  As Matt Galka tells us, a new law that went into effect this month will prevent an identity thief from messing up a child’s credit.

Identity theft is a crime that plagues Florida more than any other state in the country.  Someone gets a hold of a social security number or vital information, opens up credit cards or loans, and ruins someone financially. The act is even worse when it happens to a kid.

“Up to 50,000 children in Florida alone have had this happen to them,” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Putnam pushed for a new law to help parents protect their children’s identities.  Starting this month, Mom and Dad can freeze Junior’s credit until they’re old enough to start using it.

“Those that we’ve seen exploited the most are kids already in the system.  People who’s files are passed around frequently, kids in foster care, or other types of circumstances where a lot of people have access to their sensitive information,” said Putnam.

Children are targeted because they have a clean credit report.  A fraudster can open up credit cards in a child’s name and it could take years before anyone notices.

Identity theft investigations start with local law enforcement.

“Kids can be targeted because we’re all assigned social security numbers when we’re very young, so yes kids can be,” said Tallahassee Police Officer Dave Northway.

The old law only allowed adults to put a freeze on their credit. It now costs parents $10 bucks to do it for their kids. You can log on to www.freshfromflorida.com/protectyourchild for more info.

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Picking a President

September 23rd, 2014 by flanews

A highly scrutinized search for the next president of Florida State University will end/has ended. As Matt Galka tells us, students rallied one more time to try and make their voices heard.

Dozens of students showed up to rally and march against one of the four finalists for Florida State Unviersity’s top job.  Republican State Senator John Thrasher has been the enemy of many vocal student and faculty groups all summer.

“Starting back in May and June when they tried to rush to judgement, it was the combination of students and faculty together that got us to this moment,” said FSU Communications Professor Andy Opel.

Florida State Unviersity’s board of trustees were tasked with picking the next president after an up and down search that was highly scrutinized. Tuesday was the last chance to try and sway them.

Not every student was against Thrasher, the lawmaker had large amounts of support from fraternities and sororities on campus.

“I do believe he’ll do a wonderful job for this university. Resources are what we need at this university, John Thrasher can provide that,” said Pi Kappa Alpha president Joe Vance.

Thrasher touted his ties to the legislature which would help increase funding for the school and make them a top 25 institution.  Fellow lawmaker and alumni Matt Gaetz dropped by to support Thrasher.

“Personally I believe that John Thrasher is the most qualified candidate. I think he’ll be equally as respected in the halls of the Florida legislature as he will be in the homes of our most substantial donors,” said Rep. Gaetz.

Thrasher was the only non-academic finalist in the group of four. Some say the other three were overshadowed some of the silliness in the process.

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Prison Reform

September 22nd, 2014 by flanews

Multiple reports of inmate abuse and even deaths at the hands of Florida prison guards have led to a statewide shakeup. Matt Galka tells us about the latest crackdown, and why some say it’s not enough.

The gruesome death of Darren Rainey – a mentally ill South Florida inmate who was allegedly scalded to death in a hot shower at the hands of prison guards – has led to sweeping changes in state prisons.

The Department of Corrections cleaned house late last week.  32 prison guards from around the state were fired for their alleged roles in prisoner abuse and inmate deaths following an investigation.

We reached out to the Department of Corrections and were told that no one was available to talk about the firings, but they did provide us with this statement.

“I have made it clear that there is zero tolerance for corruption or abuse at the Department of Corrections.” said DOC Secretary Mike Crews in the statement.

But George Mallinckrodt, author of the book “Getting Away With Murder” documenting the shower death, says the state’s problem is much more rampant than a few bad actors.

“I am thinking it’s a lot bigger than Crews is letting on, he’s been talking about a few bad apples, but I’d suspect that this is happening in every prison in Florida,” said Mallinckrodt, a former prison psychotherapist in the same institution Rainey died.

Some of the guards let go in the mass firing were involved in a different inmate death in 2010.  Prisoner Randall Jordan-Aparo was allegedly gassed to death by guards at Franklin Correctional Institution.

Dale Landry with the Florida NAACP says both deaths are reasons why the firings should just be the tip of the iceberg.

“Some of these were criminal incidents, and so from that perspective, by all means, we think there should be either indictments or state attorneys need to come in and arrest them,” said Landry.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is currently looking into more than 80 inmate deaths throughout the state. The Teamsters union represents the fired prison guards. They claim the officers were not given due process before being let go.

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Marijuana Business Names Blooming

September 22nd, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

With the potential legalization of medical marijuana by voters this fall, more than a hundred corporations using the name marijuana have been formed in Florida. More are likely to set up shop if the amendment is approved.

From one end of the state to the other, more than 100 corporations using the name Marijuana have been charted by the state in at least 25 counties. They call themselves Marijuana Industries,  Marijuana RX, or the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida. Jeff Shakey chartered the Business association.  “For people trying to figure out what this virtual real estate on the internet going to look like so, as you know from your research, people went out and document and captured dozens of URL names and corporate names to try and get ahead of the curve” says the veteran lobbyist.

Sharkey has long represented one of Florida’s favorite sons..Jimmy Buffet. The two were recently seen at the exclusive Governor’s Club having lunch in the shadow of the state Capitol.

Sharkey is coy about whether Buffet sees marijuana as a potential business.

Talk to me about Jimmy Buffet” we asked. Sharkey laughs.

You’ve got pictures of him on the wall…Yeah

Well, Jimmy Buffet’s an old friend of mine. We’re represented Margritaville Holdings for a number of years. They have a very diversified business. Jimmy has been watching nationally as medical marijuana has been passed” says Sharkey.

The cost of registering a corporation is cheap..just $70. But profits could be huge. As many as 4 hundred thousand patients could qualify if voters legalize medical marijuana.

Meeting the demand for medical marijuana would require growing hundreds of thousands of pounds of pot each year.

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Rape Crisis on Campus

September 19th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

President Barack Obama today announced a nationwide effort to curb sexual assaults on college campuses, and Florida colleges, including Florida State have their work cut out.

Florida State is one of 55 colleges nationally being investigated for it’s handling of sexual assault cases. 911 calls are all too frequent. “And you said she was raped. Yeah. Is that her I hear in the background? Yeah.” is how one call was recorded.

From the first call to the follow up investigation, experts like Meg baldwin of the Refuge House near Florida State say police often make filing complaints difficult, often dropping cases and seldom filing charges. “Over the course of three years, about three hundred and to have only  two prosecutions out of that group is an extremely troubling number” says Baldwin

Jacksonville student Glennika Walker says she fees safe, but “I just think if you are aware of your surrounds and don’t take drinks from people that you don’t know.”

FSU began an education campaign earlier summer.

Research now shows that rapes on a college campus aren’t two people getting drunk, It’s a perpetrator planning his crime.

“Most of these attackers are raping more than one woman. Typically the average is about six to eight women” says Baldwin

This past week, star quarterback Jameis Winston, who was not prosecuted after rape allegations surfaced last year,  apologized for yelling an insensitive remark about women in the student union.

“I really want to apologize to my teammates” Winston told reporters before talking about the Clemson game on Saturday. We asked student Layla Behbahain of Miami what she thought.

“You know, he apologized to the team but not to the women he was yelling at. Do you think he should have done that?

“Yeah, he should have.”

Statistically, an FSU student, man or woman, will be raped this weekend.

City police and prosecutors near college campuses do not record whether a victim is a student, so the number of students being raped could be higher.

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Shopping With Putnam

September 19th, 2014 by flanews

The third and final tax free shopping weekend of the year starts today. Matt Galka tags along with the state official who pushed for the three day tax break on energy saving items.

Agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam took advantage of some tax free items Friday. Putnam pushed for the three day break on energy efficient appliances. Customers can buy up to $1500 dollars worth of products tax free – as long as they have an energy star label.

“Some people wait until things are broken to replace them, but if you need a new water heater, if you need a new refrigerator, now is the time to do it,” said Putnam.

The break mostly applies to big ticket items.

“If you bought like a $1500 dollar refrigerator and took 7 percent off of that, you’re looking at around 100 dollars savings on a refrigerator,” said Lowe’s Assistant Store Manager Todd Gruessing.

But customers can save a few bucks on long-lasting light bulbs, too. The commissioner spent a little over $100 dollars.

This sales tax holiday might be less successful than the other two, but that doesn’t mean they won’t push for more days next year.

“We would love to see for retailers, to have it spread over two weekends would be great,” said Samantha Padgett with the Florida Retail Federation.

Hurricane supplies and back-to-school tax holidays already saved shoppers millions this year. Customer Desire Esellam says he is trying to take advantage again.

“I profited because it was tax free and I went out and shopped, so it is a good idea. 7% is a lot of money,” he said.

The state estimates the last tax free weekend will save shoppers around $900,000. If you’re thinking about a new dishwasher, fridge, air conditioner, ceiling fan, or anything that is energy efficient, you’ll have until Sunday night to cash in on the savings.

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43 Scientists Want Climate Summit

September 19th, 2014 by Mike Vasilinda

43 Florida scientists are calling on the state’s political leadership to hold a climate change summit. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, both sides of the climate controversy are stepping up the heat.

Dr. Jeff Chanton is on a mission.  “I’m one of the climate science people” is what he said to a receptionist in CFO Jeff Atwater’s office.

He wants state policy makers to pay attention to climate change. “We’re a bunch of scientists and we’re offering to help the administration find some climate change solutions to the CO2 problem that we are having here in Florida” is how he greeted the receptionist in Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office.

Thursday, he hand delivered letters to the Governor, State Cabinet members, and Legislative leaders. “We can’t be such selfish people. We have to think about the people who are coming behind us” says the FSU climate researcher.

As the letters were being delivered,  Americans for Prosperity released a video,

“Sure, they have nice sounding names” Challenging one of the states leading clean energy advocates. “they want to outlaw cheap energy and replace it with energy that is more expensive.”

Chanton had to catch his breath and gather his thoughts after we showed the spot to him. Sure, it’s cheap to burn cola, but what about all these costs that are hidden, that you don’t see.”

While the scientists are being very apolitical, a group of Anti Scott groups are doing just the opposite.

“It’s Hot. We’re hot now.” Chanted demonstrators.

Next Gen Climate is actively working to oust Rick Scott. Dr. Ronald Saff was one of the protestors “The medical community is deeply concerned about climate change. We’re seeing an increase in the number of mosquito borne illnesses here in the state of Florida” says Saff.

And for all the political theatre, the demonstration took a decidedly non political turn when ASFSCME President Jeannette Wynn told teh crowd “I’m not telling you who to vote for, you vote for a leader.”

Which is something both sides can agree upon.

A coalition of groups is tentatively planning a Climate Change Summit in St. Petersburg in early October.

 

 

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The One Against Amendment One

September 18th, 2014 by flanews

An environmental protection measure on this November’s ballot was enjoying plenty of positive feedback throughout the state, but as Matt Galka tells us, some unexpected opposition has the amendment’s supporters firing back.

A popular amendment on this November’s ballot seemed like a no-brainer for many Floridians – set it in stone that about one percent of state spending goes towards environmental protection efforts. But not everyone agrees.  Florida TaxWatch released their voting guide this week…their conclusion: it doesn’t belong in the constitution.

It rubbed Amendment 1 and Environmental protection advocate Will Abberger the wrong way.

“They don’t think that protecting our state’s drinking water is important enough to be in the state’s constitution, they don’t think that restoring the everglades is important enough to be in the state’s constitution. These are things that Florida voters care about,” said Abberger.

Florida TaxWatch isn’t recommending a “yes” or “no” vote but they caution against tying up future money.

“It’s going to set aside about $500 million dollars a year, in the short term, roughly annually, that cannot be spent to pay down our constitutional obligations on the pension fund, $500 million dollars that cannot be spent on teachers, $500 million that cannot be spent on student learning,” said TaxWatch CEO Dominic Calabro.

TaxWatch says that had the amendment been in place already, environmental programs would have received less money then they got from the legislature in five of the last ten years.

The amendment is polling well and is expected to pass with overwhelming support.

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