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vt.Buzz ~ a political blog

Political notes from Free Press staff writers Terri Hallenbeck, Sam Hemingway and Nancy Remsen



Budget summit part II

The governor and legislative leaders met again today. Again, it was cordial. Again, they are optimistic. Again, they would say nothing about what really went on.

House Speaker Shap Smith did say they didn't get thrown out even after making clear that their position was that some new tax revenues are necessary.

They might have gotten thrown out if they hadn't indicated they'd be willing to yield on shifting some money from the Education Fund to the General Fund.

They meet again on Friday. We can see if the cordiality and optimism continue.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Sen. Susan Bartlett on budget realities

The Vermont Legislature's six budget negotiators sat across the table this afternoon trading questions and essentially treading water. Why? They are waiting for the "parameters" for budget cutting to be sketched out by House Speaker Shap Smith, Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin and Gov. Jim Douglas.

"Until we have that box we really can't do much," Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille said to her two Senate colleagues and three House counterparts.

But she had a message -- more for the audience than the other negotiators. "We know, no matter what the parameters are, we going to have to make some significant reductions." She continued, "I tell everyone there is nothing sacred or safe."

The negotiators have already suggested they won't tap the rainy day funds to make up for $14.6 million in revenue projected to evaporate by June 30 and $43 million that won't come in as earlier projected next year.

Speaking of the budget, House Republicans called a news conference to chastise Democrats for failing to get busy sooner on budget belt-tightening. House Republican Leader Patti Komline, R-Dorset, said, "Since before this session began, House Republicans have been calling for significant structural changes in state government in an effort to make it leaner and more efficient."

The announcement about the news conference said House Republicans would unveil a plan to tackle the short and long-term state budget crisis. The plan was pretty general -- keep services for the state's most vulnerable and make cuts to non-essential services. Long-term, develop a plan to restructure government and cap school spending next year.

When asked for specifics -- ideas that might help the budget negotiators come up with $43 million in savings next year and $14.6 million in the current budget -- House Republicans suggested cutting conservation funding ($4 million), and a new welfare program called Reach Ahead (less than $1 million) and cultural support (over $1 million)

They brought out a "master list of reduction ideas" assembled last December, plus a proposal Assistant House Republican Leader Pat McDonald, R-Berlin, developed in early January. McDonald said these were ideas to explore, not ideas the caucus endorsed.

Since House Republicans didn't have the solution in hand, what were they trying to do?

"We are hoping to inspire them (Democratic leadership, since Democrats have majorities in both the House and Senate) to become a lot bolder," Komline said. And, she stressed, look first at cuts before considering raising taxes or fees.

Bartlett warns of big cuts.
Komline calls for bold cuts.
Advocates have got to be worried that "big" plus "bold" spells bad news for their funding priorities.

-- Nancy Remsen


Legislature's closer on the DL

The Legislature is headed into its final stretch, a time when annually Sen. Vince Illuzzi kicks it into another gear and wheels/deals left and right, doesn't matter what the topic is.

Not this year, at least not yet. Illuzzi is recuperating from surgery done Monday to repair a torn retina. He's under doctor's order to lay low, and for the moment he is sort of doing that, checking in with his colleagues by phone with a patch covering his eye.

Illuzzi said he was having eye trouble and went to Dartmouth-Hitchcock on Monday, where an ultrasound revealed the problem. Surgery was a no-brainer, Illuzzi said, but not no-pain.

"It felt like somebody drove an ice pick through my eye yesterday," he said today. The pain has subsided some.

It's painful, though, for him to be away from the political action. He is the Dennis Eckersly, the Mariana Rivera, the Jonathan Papelbon of the Vermont Legislature. He wants in the game.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Condolences to Rep. Flory

I have been remiss in not passing condolences for the passing of Rep. Peg Flory's husband, Joseph, who was a guidance counselor at Rutland High School and died suddenly last week at the age of 65.

Students and co-workers at the school tell the story.

Peg Flory was at the Statehouse when she got the news. Funeral services were Saturday.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Markowitz the candidate or secretary of state?

Secretary of State Deb Markowitz played an unusual role in a column that ran on Saturday’s opinion page of the Free Press. It seems she is collecting Vermonters’ ideas for how the state can save money.

The secretary of state oversees elections, professional regulations, state archives and the registration of corporations. The job does not specifically have anything to do with managing a state budget, other than the office’s own.

Ah, but Markowitz is considering running for governor, and that job has a lot to do with managing state budgets.

So Markowitz quotes conservative Vermonter John McLaughry and tries to carve out a role for herself in solving this fiscal crisis.

What’s odd about Markowitz’s column is the line it straddles between her role as secretary of state and her role and her presumed role as a candidate for governor.

She speaks of changes her office made to eliminate the microfilm department, what with microfilm being passe. That is certainly a secretary of state function. Markowitz said she wanted to tell that story to the public.

Then she asks Vermonters to send her ideas for cutting state programs or delivering services more efficiently by sending comments to her at the Secretary of State's Office, though it does not seem like a prime secretary of state function. Markowitz argued, however, that it’s not inconsistent with the role of a state leader to ask such questions.

What is she going to do with the ideas? Share them with agency heads and legislators, she said. And probably hope that people remembered she asked even if they can't remember why.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Vt. Legislature loading the truck

There are two weeks to go in the legislative session. Two weeks to go and only three bills have so far been passed into law: sex offenders, a Vermont Student Assistance Corp. bill and same-sex marriage.

It almost seems impossible to squeeze the decisions left to be made - how to deal with a $50 million hole in the budget, etc. - into the time left.

On Friday, though, there were signs that that's going to happen. As they were getting ready to leave in the House, Speaker Shap Smith told members to get ready for the hurry-up-and-wait portion of the program that marks the end.

The way it will happen is stuff that is not on the truck will be left behind. Some can make the trip next year, as this is the first of a two-year biennium. Some will be left to rot by the side of the road.

What do you think must make it onto the truck?

- Terri Hallenbeck



Renewably cozy?

The Vermont Republican Party alleges that legislators are passing the renewable energy bill because some renewable energy producers are election donors. From Chairman Rob Roper:

"Wonder why the Democrats want to raise your electric rates? Because
they are in the pockets of their political friends. These individuals and
their companies stand to make hundreds of thousands of dollars from the
"alternative" energy bill passed by the Vermont House.
David Blittersdorf (NRG Systems) $12,000 to the Vermont Democratic
Jan Blittersdorf (NRG Systems) $12,000 to the Vermont Democratic Party
Jeffrey Wolfe (groSolar) $2,000 to the Vermont Democratic Party

Also, why is the Washington Electric Coop the ONLY electric
company exempted from the renewable energy pricing
program, saving Washington Electric thousands of dollars in electric
costs? Tony Klein, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is
a former lobbyist for Washington Electric.

This last item came up on the House floor today. The co-op would be exempt from a requirement to buy renewable power because it uses at least 25 percent renewable energy already, but with a deadline of this summer, there'd be no time for other utilities to get themselves to exempt status. Klein said he hadn't received money from the co-op in nine years.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Firm promises 43 jobs

The firm coming to St. Albans is BEMAG Transformers of Quebec, a transformer manufacturer.

BEMAG Transformers manufactures dry-type electrical transformers at a facility in Farnham, Quebec, but was nearing production capacity at that plant as it moved forward with plans to expand its share of the North American transformer market, according to the governor's office.

“The job creation and workforce training incentives Vermont offered helped seal the deal,” Christian Roberge, vice president and chief financial officer of BEMAG Transformers, said.

BEMAG will be given Green VEGI incentives totaling $267,569 and $106,000 in employee and manufacturing efficiency training from the Vermont Training Program. The Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) also approved $718,000 in financing assistance.

The company estimates it will create 16 new jobs in 2009, and will ramp up to 43 workers by the end of 2011, according to the governor's office.

Vermont Transformers is eligible to earn a maximum of $267,569 in job creation incentives over three years if they meet and maintain payroll, employment and capital investment targets each year. The incentives would be paid out over seven years, if the jobs are maintained.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Is that an override count?

When the renewable energy bill (read about it HERE with a bonus highlights-of-the-bill box that didn't make the print edition) won preliminary approval in the House on Tuesday by a vote of 92-42, it was a pretty strong margin, with support of a handful of Republicans. Take into account those who were absent and easily the "yes" votes would have reached 100.

One hundred is the number needed to override a veto if everybody is present.

After the vote, though, Republican House leader Patti Komline was telling Bill Driscoll, lobbyist for manufacturers, that a vote on an override would come out differently, as this bill might be headed for veto land.

Rep. Tony Klein, whose House Natural Resources and Energy Committee wrote the bill, said he was not so sure.

Of course, we know that votes on overrides can be different from votes on the main bill, as that just happened with the same-sex marriage bill.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Gov: New company coming to St. Albans

Gov. Jim Douglas plans Wednesday to announce a new manufacturer coming to St. Albans who promises dozens of jobs will be created in the next three years.

The company will take up residence in the former Vestshell building at 800 Industrial Park Road. The announcement is at 2 p.m.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Jim Barnett sighting

Jim Barnett, the Barre native who once worked on Gov. Jim Douglas' campaign and ran the Vermont Republican Party before heading off to John McCain's presidential campaign, has resurfaced in Connecticut.

Here's the deal:

- Terri Hallenbeck


Primary bill moves

As you can read here:
the Senate did at long last take up the primary election bill - to move the primary frm September to August - and give it preliminary approval with plenty of room to spare.

- Terri Hallenbeck


What's that smell?

Literally, there is the scent of a skunk wafting through the Statehouse this morning.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Three weeks and counting

Three weeks to go in the legislative session and an avalanche of stuff still to come.

- The budgets? General budget, transportation budget and capital budget are all on the Senate floor this week then to conference with the House. The big outstanding question mark is will it include hundreds of state employee layoffs or will there be a deal with the union?

- Taxes? A slew of them will be debated in the Senate this week, then will have to match up with the House.

- Economic development? A bill that contains everything and the kitchen sink is still pending in the Senate, hasn't been to the House yet.

- VY? Looking very much like no vote this year on relicensing, but the decommissioning bill is still pending in the Senate.

- Terri Hallenbeck



'Sexting' solution?

Ever since the Senate passed a bill that would exempt teens who voluntarily "sext" pictures of themselves from child pornography charges there's been a flurry of discussion about the topic. Senators have been on national TV defending themselves against accusations that the bill in effect condones sexting - the transmission of untoward cell phone photos.

Today, the House Judiciary Committee tried to put a halt to that talk by altering the bill to create a minor charge for such behavior.

Around the room, several 40-and-older representatives conceded they didn't know what sexting was until a few weeks ago. Some weren't sure they knew how to text a photo from one phone to another.

In the spirit of the topic, I am sharing with you a photo from by phone of the meeting where they explained their changes to the bill. Fear not, everybody's fully clothed.

- Terri Hallenbeck


State jobs resolution?

Three hundred-twenty state jobs hang in the balance as the union and the state negotiate possible cuts. You may have read about it in today's paper.

Among the cuts under consideration: pay freezes, unpaid furlough days, cuts to private contracts, cuts to health benefits.

The clock is ticking. If you're a state worker, do you see a resolution coming? If you're a non-state worker, are these cuts fair, similar to what you're seeing in your workplace, putting state services you depend on at risk?

- Terri Hallenbeck



Shumlin in England

Over in the U.K., readers of the Guardian newspaper got Vermont's Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin take on same-sex marriage.


- Terri Hallenbeck


Something's rank about tax list

Forbes magazine was the latest to come out with a list ranking states’ tax burdens. Vermont landed on the top.

Gov. Jim Douglas cited it last week as an example of why there’s no room for more taxes.
You can argue whether raising taxes now is good or bad, but let’s clarify Vermont’s number one ranking.

The Forbes story says the rankings came from adding up a bunch of state taxes and fees and dividing by the population. Here’s just one of several problems with that method: It doesn’t include county taxes.

Vermont has virtually no county government. Almost all the services that county governments in other states provide are provided by state government here, and paid for by state taxes.

Back when I was a pup of a reporter, I covered the Chenango County Board of Supervisors in central New York. The board wrestled with such issues as whether to build a new county jail, how to pay for social services, how many probation officers it could afford.

All those functions are part of state government here. Reporter Matt Woolsey did not return a call asking for clarification about what went into the tax ranking.

A study by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office a few years ago showed how complicated it is to compare taxes in one state vs. another. Complicated doesn’t work for nice, neat top 10 lists, though.

You throw those expenses into what New Yorkers and their counterparts in all other states with full county governments are paying in taxes and the rankings are likely to change. Vermont might still be high, but tops? We reserve that for rankings of best places to live.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Push for earlier primary stalls

A bill to move the state's primary elections from September to August is lingering on the Senate calendar. Moldering, you could say.

That's because supporters aren't sure they have the votes to pass the bill, which came out of Senate Government Operations Committee with a 3-2 vote.

A 3-2 committee vote, though it was tight, is not necessarily an indication that a bill wouldn't pass the full Senate easily. The two who voted against it in committee are Republicans and there are only seven Republicans in the 30-member Senate.

So this means that the proposal to move the primary is not being embraced by some Democrats, though it would give their party more time before the general election to sort out the scramble for the gubernatorial nomination next year.

The thing about moving the primary is the lack of a really good place to move it to. August, as Sen. William Doyle, said is a "weird" time for an election. July would fall in that same category. June is kind of early.

Based on the bill's lack of movement, I wouldn't bet on any changes for 2010.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Senate sexting provisions topic for TV

Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, will have a few minutes of fame on the Today Show tomorrow (Wednesday) morning at about 7:30 a.m.

His topic will be provisions about sexting included in a rcently passed Senate bill. If you aren’t familiar with sexting, it’s sending sexually explicit photos between cell phones.

The risk now is that young people could be charged with pornography and face dire consequences -- such as being listed on the public sexual offender registry.

The Senate bill proposes to remove the most serious consequences for sexting.

"We don't want our kids who made a bad decision to suffer for the rest of their lives," Campbell said.

He recognizes this is an awkward issue to defend, but said he believes he can make the case for the Senate provisions before a national television audience.

The bill is currently under review by the House Judiciary Committee, so it's not law yet.

--Nancy Remsen


Marriage bills to the east, west

New York Gov. David Paterson is expected to introduce same-sex marriage legislation in that state Thursday, according to the New York Times.


In New Hampshire, meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a Wednesday hearing on legislation that has passed the House there.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Bernie's slow burn

Remember the Red scare of the 1950s, when Sen. Joe McCarthy, R-Wisc., was claiming he had a list of known Communists working for the U.S. State Department and other branches of government?

He never did produce that list, and he was later censured by the Senate for his conduct, but not before a lot of innocent people's careers were ruined.

Now comes conservative Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who told a Birmingham newspaper last week he has a list of 17 Socialists who are members of Congress.

Asked to name who was on said list, he could only come up with one person, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who intellectually may be an unabashed socialist but in reality is a very liberal independent who usually votes with the Democrats.

Sanders, in remarks published by the Politico Web site, is not amused with Bachus' antics.

“Has Spencer released his list yet? Everybody’s waiting with bated breath,” Sanders said. “I think at the very least he has to tell people what his definition of socialism is — and I think, yeah, he should tell us who he was referring to, who’s on the list." he added. For a full look at the Politico piece, click HERE.

It's not the first time that Sanders has been attacked for his socialist leanings, and it probably won't be the last. When he was closing in on defeating then-Rep. Peter Smith, R-Vt., in 1990, Smith tried to hit him with a similar smear, and tumbled to a 16 percentage point defeat.

-- Sam Hemingway



VSEA-administration hit impasse

The Douglas administration will begin the process of laying off 320 state workers Tuesday after contract negotiations with the union failed Monday afternoon.

- Terri Hallenbeck


All live, all news, all the time

My goodness, Vermont has hosted a lot of big news in the last week.

It continues today, and if you've been wrapped up in Capt. Richard Phillips' saga at sea, you might want to tune in while your local newspaper does more of that live coverage thing.

Andrea Phillips, the wife of captain Richard Phillips, will provide a statement at a news briefing at 4 p.m. today at the Sheraton Burlington Hotel & Conference Center in South Burlington. The Burlington Free Press plans to provide live coverage of her statement.

Turn your dial to www.burlingtonfreepress.com.

- Terri Hallenbeck



The Web, government and you

In the new world order of electronic devices, we here at the newspaper have made increased use in the last couple weeks of live online coverage of the same-sex marriage debate. Perhaps you were among those who tuned in.

It was an interesting ride. We received a lot of comments from people who appreciated being able to watch hearings and floor votes online, where they could see the action on camera and listen to the, all while sharing comments with other viewers and deeply insightful interpretation by yours truly.

I have no idea if the Web will be what saves newspapers or kills them, but I found this use to be a good thing.

People who don't normally follow the workings of government had a chance to see it for themselves. They learned it wasn't fast or convenient, but instead sometimes long and boring. Frankly, if it weren't sometimes long and boring, everybody would want to be there and you might not need people like me translating it for you.

But if the Web can help us bring you directly to the seat of government occasionally and uncover the mysteries of what goes in, that's a good thing.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Triumph followed by tragedy

Passage of the same-sex marriage bill is something House Majority Leader Floyd Nease would have wanted to revel in. Not to mention his first successful veto override.

He didn't have a chance to do that Tuesday. Nease's mother died just before the House went on the floor to take the vote. He stayed because without his vote it would not have passed, then he left for New Hampshire.

Whichever side of the issue you fall on, that's heart-wrenching. Our best wishes are with him.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Statehouse timing

The same-sex marriage bill flew down the hall from the Senate to the governor's office with lightning quickness today.

Why the hurry? Two reasons.

First, those on both sides of the issue are eager to move on to other things. Though the word "distraction" is loaded, there's no question this issue has dominated a fair number of people's time and attention.

Also, proponents of the bill are sensitive to the calendar. With Good Friday and Easter nearly upon us, they don't need to give their church-going colleagues any more reminders of some of those churches' opposition.

So here's the timetable:

- 9 a.m. Tuesday: Senate convenes; votes on override. Expected to pass.
- 10 a.m. Tuesday: House convenes; votes on override. Outcome uncertain.

The time is not exact, mind you. There are other issues on the calendars. If the wrong people are late to the Statehouse, things could change.

- Terri Hallenbeck


Drama on the House floor

Join us Tuesday for live coverage at www.burlingtonfreepress.com of the same-sex marriage veto override vote. If you were with us for live coverage of last week's floor debate in the House you know we had a lively online conversation going.

I wrote in Saturday's paper about the odds on how the House might vote on the override. For supporters of same-sex marriage, it could be a matter of reeling in one more House Democrat who voted against the bill.

The vote promises to be the most suspense-filled vote I have seen in the Legislature.

Exactly when will this take place? Well, that's hard to say. One of the things people may be learning through this process is that democracy doesn't happen at the snap of the fingers. We'll let you know when we have a better idea of the timing.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Cliff-hanger gay marriage vote could be Tuesday

You may have heard that the House voted 95-52 last night in favor of same-sex marriage legislation. They vote again this afternoon, although right now they have a huge thirst for debating the 2010 budget bill.

By the way, Republican Rich Westman, who was absent last night, says he will vote for the bill today. He voted against civil unions in 2000, but says the world is a different place now.

This morning, Beth Robinson, leader of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, gave Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin the breaking news that even if Vermont passes same-sex marriage into law, it will not be the third state in the country to do so. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously this morning that the state must offer marriage to same-sex couples.

Vermont would still be the first state to enact same-sex marriage without a court order, if this legislation becomes law.

Will that happen? I would say the possibility is hanging by a single thread. Razor thin was the phrase one legislator used as the margin for an override of the governor's promised veto.

We will find out sooner rather than later, as the Senate is expected to concur Monday with changes the House made to the bill, send the bill to the governor, who will be waiting with his veto pen. That puts the bill back in the Senate on Tuesday, where a 2/3 vote for an override is a breeze and then to the House, where a 2/3 vote is a cliff-hanger. We could know by lunchtime Tuesday.

- Terri Hallenbeck



Crowd: 'Thank you, Jim'

A crowd of same-sex marriage opponents gathered outside the governor's Statehouse office as he was beginning his news conference this afternoon and chanted, "Thank you, Jim."

Of the perhaps 100 or so who converged, about 20 were allowed into the office. A few murmured comments of support for the governor as he talked about the importance of the budget and economy.

Thank you, Jim, of course, is a borrowed phrase. Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, a Republican from Stowe, was walking down memory lane over its creation when she was on Sen. Jim Jeffords' staff. Thanks, Jim was a campaign phrase, then when he switched out of the Republican Party, those who were happy about that produced bumper stickers saying Thanks, Jim.
- Terri Hallenbeck


Same-sex marriage opponents rally outside the Statehouse

At least 175 people assembled on the steps outside the Statehouse just now for a rally against the same-sex marriage bill the House will debate later today.

Organizers passed out the stickers that will compete for attention in the Statehouse with the yellow circles worn by same-sex marriage supporters. Two rectangular stickers proclaim “Marriage, a mother and father for every child” and “Don’t change God’s plan, one man and one woman.”

Steve Cable of Vermont Renewal led off the rally. “Today is going to be an historic day, no matter what happens.” He complained that lawmakers had rushed the bill through the review process. “Fundamental questions haven’t been answered,” he said.

He noted that in 2000 after the Legislature enacted the civil union law and some lawmakers lost their seats in the subsequent election, many Vermonters went back to their regular lives.

After this vote, Cable said, “We can’t stop.”

Rev. Craig Bensen took the microphone next. He told the crowd that the supporters of same-sex marriage had clearly spent a bundle on their campaign. “Whatever their figure is, it will be at least 20-to-1 what we have been able to put into the battle.”

Bensen, whose group Take it to the People advocated a referendum nine years ago when this debate began, renewed that call Thursday.

“Let Vermont vote,” he called and the crowd answered with the same words.

-- Nancy Remsen

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Buzz about anti-gay marriage robo calls to Vermont lawmakers

Bit of a buzz in a tense Statehouse this morning. It's about last night's calls seemingly across the state urging people to call their House members and urge them to support Gov. Jim Douglas in opposing the same-sex marriage bill coming up for its first vote today.

The automated calls specifically named the legislator that the recipients should phone. The calls came throughout the evening, according to lawmakers. One came to my house, too.

House Judiciary Chairman William Lippert, D-Hinesburg, said he got a call to call himself. He also received calls and e-mails from constituents who were responding to the robo phone message. Three urged him to stick with the governor's position and vote against the bill that would legalize civil marriage between two men or two women.

Lippert said the vast majority of the calls and e-mails he received urged him to stick with his position supporting the marriage equality legislation.

"I kind of think it may have achieved some backfire effect," Lippert said.

The automated voice said the call was on behalf of the National Organization for Marriage -- apparently based outside Vermont.

At the Statehouse today, the other side in this debate arrived early and now occupy most every public seat in the House chamber. Folks sporting yellow stickers that say from "legal rights to equal rights" are reading, doing crosswords and patiently waiting for a debate that won't start for many hours.

Outside one entrance to the Statehouse, a bundle of red and heart-shaped balloons greeted lawmakers as they arrived. Inside, security is high, with extra officials and a canine unit.

-- Nancy Remsen

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No love lost between Douglas, VSEA

By the time this is over, I suspect the Vermont State Employees Association and the Douglas administration will come to some agreement on contract concessions/layoffs. Things didn't look good, though, Tuesday.

On the Statehouse steps, union leaders pretty much called for Gov, Jim Douglas' ouster, though their opinion on that matter has not prevailed in the past.

Then, as you can read HERE, the governor went out of his way to avoid walking by the union members, as he walked from his Statehouse office to the his Pavilion office next door.

- Terri Hallenbeck

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