June 23, 2017

Rick Scott signs medical marijuana, 38 other bills into law

Scott

@MichaelAuslen

Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed into law a broader medical marijuana system for the state, following through on a promise he made earlier this month.

Lawmakers passed the measure (SB 8A) in a special session after failing in their regular session early this year, to implement a constitutional amendment legalizing the drug, which was supported the will of 71 percent of voters.

Under the constitutional amendment, patients with a host of conditions can buy and use medical marijuana. Among them: cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma and epilepsy.

The new law also sets in motion a plan to license 10 new companies as growers by October, bringing the statewide total to 17.

It allows patients to use cannabis pills, oils, edibles and "vape" pens with a doctor's approval but bans smoking.

"The constitutional amendment was passed overwhelmingly, and I'm glad the House and Senate were able to come together for a bill that makes sense for our state," Scott said earlier  this month.

Lawsuits are likely to follow. John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer who bankrolled the constitutional amendment’s campaign, has promised to sue over the smoking ban, and Tampa strip club magnate Joe Redner said he will file a suit because people cannot grow their own plants.

The marijuana law is among 38 bills Scott signed Friday afternoon.

He also approved a measure (HB 441) that will give court clerks added protection in public record cases.

Current law does not specify whether clerks can be sued for handing out information that is supposed to be protected from public disclosure if the lawyers who filed documents with that information did not mark it as confidential. Now, they will have that protection.

And a bill (HB 689) to let anyone with a beer and wine license sell sake beginning July 1 was signed into law as well. That, Times food critic Laura Reiley writes, would be good news for fans of sushi and ramen who want to enjoy the Japanese rice spirit with dinner.

Photo: Gov. Rick Scott (SCOTT KEELER|Tampa Bay Times)

Credit rating agency: HB 7069 could affect Florida school districts' financial standing

Florida Legislature (38)

From the News Service of Florida:

Part of a controversial and wide-ranging education bill (HB 7069) signed by Gov. Rick Scott could affect the credit ratings of some of the state's school districts, according to a report released Thursday by Moody's Investors Service.

The report said a requirement that school districts share construction funds generated by local property taxes with charter schools "is credit negative for school districts with significant charter enrollment."

The finding isn't a change to the districts' ratings, but could affect them in the future.

"As capital revenues follow students to charters, traditional schools' ability to cut capital expenditures will be tempered by aging infrastructure and the need to attract and retain students," the analysis said.

The bill, championed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, touched off weeks of debate, with major education groups urging Scott to veto it. But Scott signed the measure last week.

Read the Moody's report here.

Photo credit: Gov. Rick Scott speaks to legislators at the end of a special session, Friday, June 9, 2017, in Tallahassee, Fla. AP

June 21, 2017

LGBTQ activists say Rick Scott promised to ban discrimination and never delivered

TP_403973_ELLI_0064_orlando

@MichaelAuslen

In the wake of the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year, Gov. Rick Scott’s staff told LGBTQ rights activists in backroom meetings that he would sign an executive order banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in state hiring and contracting.

One year later, it’s a promise Scott hasn’t kept, says state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat and former lobbyist for Equality Florida, which advocates on behalf of Florida’s LGBTQ community.

“He promised, and his office gave us every indication that this was going to happen,” Smith told the Times/Herald this week. “At this point, it’s a broken promise.”

After a gunman opened fire in the nightclub and killed 49 people — most of them LGBTQ and Latino — Equality Florida ratcheted up calls for the governor to sign an order. They even provided draft language modeled after a similar rule in effect in Jacksonville, Smith said.

There was no public acknowledgement of any agreement on the issue. But Smith said that assurances were made in private conversations with Scott’s then-Chief of Staff Kim McDougall and legislative affairs director Kevin Reilly. Smith provided emails to the Times/Herald that reference those meetings and a series of follow-up conversations that lasted for months.

Scott’s office did not dispute the account that a promise had been made to LGBTQ rights activists. A spokeswoman, Lauren Schenone, said the state “doesn’t tolerate discrimination in any form.”

“In accordance with federal guidelines, Florida state agencies do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and state employees should not be discriminated against in any way,” she said in a statement. “Our office will continue to review ways we can work to eliminate discrimination of any kind.”

Still, no executive order has been signed.

Without a written order, formal complaints and lawsuits can’t be filed, Smith said. What’s more, he said any policy should include gender identity and extend to state contractors as well as employees.

Equality Florida has been pushing for broader protections for the LGBTQ community in Florida, including a law that would outlaw discrimination in housing, hiring and public accommodations. Right now in Florida, it is legal to fire, refuse to rent to or decline to serve people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

That would require action from the Legislature, which has in more than 10 years given just one hearing to the issue, even as more and more Republicans declare public support for the bill.

But Scott can sign an executive order unilaterally.

“The governor at this point has failed to lead and doesn’t have the courage to actually take action on behalf of the 49 people who were murdered in this state,” Smith said. “The governor is the governor. It’s on his shoulders.”

Photo: Gov. Rick Scott finishes a TV interview in the days following the Pulse shooting in 2016. (LOREN ELLIOT | Times)

Another lawsuit attempts to get juice out of the citrus scare by overturning Rick Scott's veto

Canker 1997@MaryEllenKlas

The legal saga of thousands of lost citrus trees took a new twist late Tuesday as homeowners in Broward and Lee counties asked the court to reverse Gov. Rick Scott's line-item veto of $37.3 million to compensate trees destroyed a decade ago.

The unusual lawsuit, filed in the Florida Supreme Court, claims that Scott's veto of two specific appropriations -- $20.9 million and $16.4 million -- was unconstitutional because it undermines the state's obligation to make good on an illegal "taking" of private property. 

After years of litigation, the Legislature for the first time set aside the money this year to compensate homeowners who lost "healthy, uninfected residential citrus trees" as part of the state's Citrus Canker Eradication Program between 2000 and 2006 and to pay their attorneys fees.

In 2008, Broward courts awarded 70,036 homeowners in that county $20.9 million as payment for their lost citrus trees. In 2014, another court awarded 167,677 homeowners in Lee County $16.4 million for their lost trees.

The state was ordered to make the payments on the grounds that destroying the trees without adequate compensation was an unconstitutional "taking."

But in his veto message, Scott rejected the payments  -- saying they were vetoed "because of ongoing litigation."

The homeowners argue that there is no ongoing litigation -- except the lawsuit to collect the payments.

They say his reason was not only wrong, it was unconstitutional and violates their rights to due process.

The veto "undermines the State’s constitutional obligation to pay full compensation for the taking of private property."

They cite the Florida Constitution which states: “No private property shall be taken except for a public purpose and with full compensation therefore paid to each owner or secured by deposit in the registry of the court and available to the owner.”

If the court accepts the case, it could test the premise offered the Fourth District Court of Appeals that said if the state didn't authorize the payments, Broward homeowners and their lawyers could pursue a writ of mandamus "to enforce the judgments."

Throughout Florida history, only the state Legislature has had the power to overturn a governor's veto of an appropriation in the state spending bill.

Lawmakers set aside the money to compensate homeowners this year after the Fourth District Court of Appeals held that "while the government has the ability to establish procedures for payment of its constitutional obligation, it does not have the luxury of avoiding it."

In an attempt to follow through the on the suggested remedy, attorneys filed a claim with the Broward circuit court, seeking a mandamus judgment. The case is still pending.

The petition filed Tuesday asks the state's highest court to issue a writ of mandamus to "expunge" the vetoes from the record and "direct the Chief Financial Officer" to pay the homeowners as set forth in the settlement agreement the state signed.

Under the failed citrus eradication program, state agriculture inspectors deployed crews with chain saws to chop down 577,253 orange, grapefruit and key lime trees throughout the state — even if the trees showed no signs of infection.

Outraged property owners representing counties with 94 percent of the lost trees joined five class action lawsuits to seek compensation. In four of the cases, the court ordered the state to pay more than $100 million in judgments, attorneys fees and interest.

The fifth case, involving Miami-Dade residents who lost 40 percent of the healthy trees removed in Florida, is still pending. The bench trial in that case ended June 2016 but the judge has not ruled.

Broward homeowners sought compensation for the destruction of 133,720 healthy trees and Lee County homeowners sought payment for 33,957 healthy trees.

Lawmakers added the money to the budget for only two of the four counties in which judgments have been rendered. They did not include money for homeowners in Orange and Palm Beach counties.  

The courts uniformly disagreed with lawyers for the Department of Agriculture, and Commissioner Adam Putnam, who argued against paying homeowners for the lost trees. They contended that trees exposed to canker were a public nuisance and their removal is not a taking that should be compensated by the state.

Petitioners include homeowners, Toby and Robert Bogorff, Timothy Farley, Beth and Roald Garcia, Deanna and John Klockow, Lois and Charles Stroh, and Nancy and Joseph Dolliver and the law firms of Grossman Roth, Robert C. Gilbert, P.A., Lytal Reiter Smith Ivey & Fronrath, and Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman, P.L. who represented the owners of residential properties in Broward and Lee Counties, Florida.

"The importance of deciding this issue before the commencement of the new budget year cannot be overstated,'' the petition argues.

"Absent an immediate decision by this Court, the State will argue that no appropriated funds exist with which to pay and satisfy the constitutional takings judgments held by Petitioners, and Petitioners will be left holding constitutional takings judgments that cannot be satisfied.

"The process will continue to recur unless this Court puts an end to it once and for all."

Photo: A work crew mulches a citrus plant in Hialeah in 1997, the early stages of South Florida’s canker war. Roberto Koltun El Nuevo Herald

June 20, 2017

Citizens Property Insurance seeks average hike of more than 10 percent in South Florida, blames Legislature

Citizens water damage@MaryEllenKlas

South Florida homeowners insured by Citizens Property Insurance Corp. will likely see annual premiums rise by more than 10 percent next year if the rate increase requested on Tuesday is approved.

“The horizon looks really cloudy out there,” said Barry Gilway, president and CEO of Citizens, the state-run insurer of last resort and the second largest holder of property insurance in Florida -- behind Universal Property & Casualty -- at a meeting of the insurer’s Board of Governors in the Orlando suburb of Maitland.

He was not referring to the start of what is expected to be an active hurricane season. Instead, he said, the soaring rates in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties are because of something regulators have been unable to track: excessive water damage claims buoyed by homeowners who assign their claims to a contractor doing the repairs, giving the contractor — and often the aggressive law firms they hire — the right to collect payments directly from the insurance company.

If approved by state regulators, the statewide residential rate increases will average 5.3 percent, but because each policy is based on the homeowner’s risk, no one pays exactly the average. The company wants an average rate increase of 10.5 percent for Miami-Dade, 10.4 percent for Broward, 9.3 percent for Palm Beach and 3.8 percent for Monroe.

It’s a problem affecting not only Citizens, but most other insurers, too, and it has been mounting for years. But, for the third year in a row, the Florida Legislature left Tallahassee last session without doing anything to address the problem.

Citizens Board member Gary Aubuchon, a former Republican state representative from Cape Coral, placed the blame squarely on lawmakers.

Citizens Property Insurance “is sailing into shark-infested waters in a ship that was created by the Legislature,” he said. “Each year they send us out, and we come back asking to fix our ship and they send us back out with duct tape.”

Unlike South Florida, most counties are projected to see multi-peril rates go down. In Tampa Bay will be less than the state average next year.

Pinellas County will see its Citizens rates for multi-peril homeowners lines drop by 5.7 percent. Hillsborough County residents will see a 0.8 percent increase, Pasco County a 2.7 percent drop, and Hernando County a 2.2 percent increase.

"Outside of South Florida, we don't see the degree of assignnment of benefits abuses that we see in south florida and that's been reflected in the rates,'' said Michael Peltier, Citizens spokesperson. He said that the drop in reinsurance costs and more competitive pricing related to windstorm coverage has contributed to the rate declines in the other markets.

"We are concerned some of the trends we are seeing in South Florida are spreading to the Tampa Bay area and Orlando," Peltier said. "But the rate proposed for 2018 reflects the hard numbers we've seen in the last two or three years."

State law allows policyholders who need repairs to their homes to assign their rights to seek reimbursement from the insurance companies to third-party contractors. Some contractors persuade homeowners whose pipes or appliances have ruptured to assign over the benefits (AOB) and, working with attorneys, file lawsuits against the insurer if the claims are denied or payments are reduced.

The cost of the litigation, on top of the repairs, has increased the cost of an average Citizens multi-peril homeowner policy from $367 in 2011 to a projected $2,083 in 2017, the company reported.

Gilway said that 50 percent of the water claims in South Florida are litigated, which can make a case five times more expensive to settle. (Without litigation, the average cost per claim is $6,000 to $7,000, but if a lawyer takes the case, the cost rise to $30,000 to $35,000 per claim, the rate request said.)

In South Florida, water claims make up 95 percent of all litigation claims and 56 percent of the company’s multi-peril homeowners exposure, Gilway said. For that reason, insurers have warned Florida lawmakers to tighten the rules in an attempt to curb the litigation, or the mounting losses will continue costing customers more.

State law limits Citizens to a maximum rate increase of 10 percent a year per policyholder, but doesn’t include the portion of the rate included in the Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, so some rates will rise above the cap. The company predicts the cap will lead to a loss of about $124 million this year and $182 million in 2018 in its multi-peril homeowners lines, Gilway said. Profits from commercial lines of insurance will offset some of those losses in 2017, he said, but not in 2018.

Private insurance companies, which aren’t under the same restrictions, are seeking rate increases that are even higher than Citizens. Deerfield Beach-based People’s Trust, which insured 54,267 single-family homes in South Florida asked for 14.5-percent average rate hike for multi-peril homeowner coverage in March. The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation rejected the company’s request and instead improved a higher one — an average of 16 percent — to cover its losses.

In addition to rate increase, the Citizens board authorized the company to ask the Office of Insurance Regulation to also approve changes to the way the company handles claims, in an effort to persuade homeowners to avoid litigation and curb the costs. If the changes are not approved, Citizens said its losses and exposure will rise.

Among the changes:

Give homeowners a limit of $10,000 in non-weather related water damage repairs unless they voluntarily agree to follow Citizens repair guidelines, in which case they can overcome the cap and get full coverage.

Require any third part who elects to receive a homeowner’s insurance benefits to be subject to the same duties after a loss as the homeowner — something that is not currently required in law.

Limit coverage to one non-weather loss every two years and two in five years.

Waive the deductible in water claims if the homeowner agrees to work with Citizens’ “managed repair” program — often using the insurers’ contractors — when repairing the damage in an effort to avoid litigation.

“In no way, shape or form will this issue ever be resolved without legislation,” Gilway added. “These are stop-gap measures.”

Steve Bitar, chief of underwriting and agency services, emphasized that the changes they are seeking are voluntary for homeowners.

“We don’t want to take coverage away, so all customers will have the option to elect the managed repair program,” he said. “It is key to that partnership and that balance in our proposal.”

This is the second time in three years that Citizens is seeking a rate increase for South Florida. This year, rates rose 8.9 percent to 10 percent for policyholders who renewed in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.

“At the end of the day, the AOB situation not only continues, but it is truly getting worse,” Gilway told the board. “It’s not just a Citizens problem. It’s an industry-wide problem.”

The House in April approved a bill (HB 1421) that attempted to curb litigation over the AOB claims. It had the support of Citizens and other insurance industry backers but was criticized by lawyers, restoration and repair companies, and consumer groups as too favorable to the insurance industry. The Senate did not hear a similar bill and lawmakers adjourned without addressing the problem.

Don Glisson said he had his doubts that the same Legislature will do anything different. “We have to come up with assumption we are not going to get any relief next year, the year after, who knows?,’’ he said.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier told Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet last week that excessive AOB costs, which had been a problem mainly in South Florida, is now becoming a problem in other parts of the state. 

“We are going to continue to see homeowners' insurance companies raise their rates for our consumers in a best-case scenario, and in a worst-care scenario just simply stop offering their products in certain regions of the state,” he said.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater also urged the Legislature to address the issue when it returns in regular session Jan. 9. but he described the situation as a “balancing act.”

“We never want to harm any individual out there in getting the absolute quick and full coverage they deserve on a claim,” Atwater said. “But the majority of this right now is costing the honest Floridian tremendous pain.”

 Photo: J. Albert Diaz/Herald Staff, Miami Herald file photo

 

June 19, 2017

Gov. Rick Scott returns to Connecticut, hoping to lure jobs south

Gov. Rick Scott returned to Connecticut Monday, reviving his long-dormant strategy of trying to raid jobs from high-tax states that are led by Democratic governors.

It's a return engagement for Scott, a former resident of Stamford, who visited Connecticut two years ago in search of jobs. Last year, the governor attracted a burst of attention for suggesting that Yale University relocate from New Haven to Florida. Scott has made similar trips to California, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland and Minnesota.

"The business environment in Connecticut simply cannot compete with everything Florida has to offer," Scott said in a statement. "That is why I am leading an economic development mission to Connecticut to share this message firsthand with job creators and site selectors."

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has some of the lowest poll numbers of any governor in the country. His favorability rating stood at 29 percent in an April Quinnipiac University, whose pollster, Doug Schwartz, told local a news outlet that voters did not like the fact that Malloy raised taxes soon after he took office.

In response to Scott's trips to the Norwalk Inn and Conference Center in addition to New Canaan, Stamford and Darien, Malloy issued this statement: "If he’s expecting anyone in Connecticut to buy what he’s selling, he’s better off saving his taxpayers the cost of the trip and staying home.” (Note: Scott travels on a personal jet and generally only bills taxpayers for lodging, not transportation costs).

The governor's office said Scott brought chief of staff Jackie Schutz Zeckman to Connecticut, but none of his economic development experts joined him. Scott's schedule did not identify by name any of the CEOs or site selectors he planned to visit.

Hartford-based Aetna, one of the nation's largest insurance companies, reportedly plans to leave Connecticut. When General Electric announced its plans to leave Connecticut a few years ago, Scott urged the company to consider moving to Florida, but GE moved to Greater Boston instead.

Richard Corcoran: The Legislature's most interesting man is also it's most contradictory

Richard Corcoran end of session If he were being cast for a television commercial, House Speaker Richard Corcoran would likely win the part this year as “the most interesting man in Tallahassee.”

He behaves like a street fighter but operates like an Army general, marshaling a small platoon of loyalists to corner the adversary until concessions are inevitable.

The proof came in a daylong victory tour with Gov. Rick Scott, whom Corcoran spent the last year accusing of being a crony capitalist in charge of an “absolute cesspool” known as Enterprise Florida, the state’s corporate recruitment agency.

Rather than punishing Corcoran for the blasphemous rhetoric, Scott rewarded him, inviting him along for the five-city “Victory Tour” and signing Corcoran’s coveted education bill.

Corcoran, a former Republican political operative with more than 25 years of legislative experience, says he is motivated by “principle, always principle.” He told the Herald/Times that, from his unique perspective, this session “was the most transformative and transparent in the Legislature’s history.”

His signature effort, a controversial education reform known as HB 7069, and the governor’s priority, the $160 million in economic development programs, will be viewed “as the model for the rest of the nation, the world,” he proclaimed.

But attached to the superlatives is a trail of contradictions that has raised questions about whether the “disrupter” image Corcoran tried to carefully craft really fits the man. Read more here. 

June 15, 2017

Was Gardiner scholarship a pawn or a principle in passage of HB 7069?

Morning Star TBT
The setting chosen by Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran to sign the controversial HB 7069 school reform bill today is a telling example of how it doesn't matter how you get there in Tallahassee if in the end you can claim credit.

The media advisory announcing the event highlighted the fact that the bill will be signed at 3:45 p.m., at "Morning Star Catholic School in Orlando, which serves many children who recieve the Gardiner Scholarship." (We assume the misspelling of "receive" was a mistake.)

HB 7069 allocates $30 million to expand the Gardiner Scholarship, a voucher program named after former Senate President Andy Gardiner that helps students with disabilities pay for alternative education options. The program provides tuition, therapy and other services to roughly 8,000 disabled students and has grown so quickly that organizers say they need more money to fill the need.

But while Corcoran and Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, will be in attendance to take credit for including the program in the bill, expansion of the Gardiner Scholarship was not included in the House's original version of HB 7069 or in its original budget. The Senate did include $100 million in its budget for the program.

It was only during budget negotiations with the House did the House agree to finance the program -- but at the lower $30 million level -- and while they authorized the expansion in HB 15, House leaders wove the funding into the controversial HB 7069 and touted it as an essential component.

Opponents blasted the strategy as an attempt to use vulnerable children as "pawns" to gain support for the controversial legislation.

"Once again, the legislature is playing upon public sympathies by using the Gardiner scholarship as a pawn to ensure the controversial expansion of charter schools via the “Schools of Hope,'' wrote Suzette Lopez, the mother of a special needs child in Miami on the blog, Accountabaloney. "Legislators preyed upon the vulnerabilities of families and students with disabilities to provide support for questionable policy." She urged a veto of HB 7069.

By the end of session, Diaz had taken ownership of the idea to fund the scholarship program but only as part of the overall package of reforms included in HB 7069.

In an opinion piece with Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, they wrote that expansion of the Gardiner scholarship is important "to ensure every child with special needs receiving a Gardiner scholarship will continue to receive that scholarship and achieve their full potential in life."

Photo: Morning Star School of Tampa, Tampa Bay Times.

The wait is over: controversial charter expansion bill to become law with governor's signature today

School bus@ByKristenMClark and @KyraGurney 

Gov. Rick Scott announced that he will sign a charter-school-friendly, $419 million K-12 public schools bill that has incited a groundswell of criticism and opposition statewide, rejecting arguments from traditional public school advocates.

The governor will sign the bill Thursday afternoon at Morning Star Catholic School in Orlando, where he will be accompanied by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., who championed the legislation.

The bill will make it easier for privately managed charter schools to further expand in Florida and to receive additional taxpayer funding to boost their operations. It also includes a wide range of other provisions including daily school recess for most elementary school students and $30 million in extra funding to expand a voucher program that helps kids with disabilities.

The bill received broad support from House Republicans, school choice proponents — including charter school operators, whose companies would directly benefit from the legislation — and conservative political groups, such as two affiliated with the industrialist Koch Brothers. Read more here.

June 14, 2017

Rick Scott signs tough new mandatory minimums for fentanyl into law

SP_409497_KEEL_11_FLGOV

@MichaelAuslen

Gov. Rick Scott has signed into law tough, new minimum mandatory prison sentences for people cought with more than 4 grams of deadly fentanyl or carfentanil.

The measure (HB 477), which passed in the final days of the legislative session, is meant to target drug traffickers and curb the opioid epidemic that is sweeping through parts of the state.

It was one of 28 bills Scott signed Wednesday.

“This legislation was my top priority this session — because it gives law enforcement and prosecutors the tools we need to combat the trafficking of fentanyl and save lives," Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement.

Beginning this October, judges will be bound to sentence people posessing 4 grams of fentanyl to three years in prison, 14 grams to 15 years in prison and 28 grams to 25 years in prison. These minimum sentences are meant to criminalize traffickers of fentanyl, which in recent years has grown to be one of the most prominent opioid killers in Florida.

In the first half of 2016 alone, fentanyl and potent analogs like carfentanyl killed 853 poeple in Florida and contributed to 135 more deaths, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.

The bill Scott signed drew some controversy, however, because it institutes mandatory minimums.

Opponents in the Legislature wanted to give judges more discretion in extreme cases when it appeared someone may not realize how much fentanyl they had or even that they had it at all.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, warned that the way the bill was written, a few grams of carfentanil mixed in a water bottle could put someone behind bars for 25 years. Someone thinking they just had a few grams would be facing signficant time in prison unknowingly he argued.

“Addicts have no idea what they are buying,” he said.

The other 27 bills Scott signed late Wednesday were as follows (descriptions courtesy of Scott's office):

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