Mitch Perry - SaintPetersBlog

Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

Politicos celebrate at Tampa Pride

Ybor City was the site of Tampa’s Pride celebration Saturday, the biggest event since organizers revived it in 2015.

“When Carrie (West) said we want to bring the Pride Parade to Tampa, I said let’s roll!” yelled an exuberant Bob Buckhorn in kicking off the festivities.

West and longtime partner Mark Bias are founding members of Tampa Pride and helped create the GaYBOR District Coalition in the aughts. He was inspired to bring the event back to Tampa after the Hillsborough County Commission repealed their infamous ban on gay pride events back in June of 2013.

Over the past decade, the St. Petersburg LGBT Pride parade has become one of the biggest celebrations in the entire Southeast, generating crowds of over 150,000. While Tampa’s event is nowhere near that scale, this year’s event featured 80 percent more booths than in 2016, with additional stages added as well.

The day featured a tribute to the survivors first responders and bar staff from last year’s shooting tragedy at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, which killed 49 people, the deadliest mass shooting in the United States and the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11.

“Pulse was our home. It was our safe place, but in mere moments, the place that we knew as our sanctuary had been taken from us,” Neema Bahrami, the entertainment manager of Pulse, told the crowd. “It was easy to feel defeated, empty, exhausted and hopeless, but through our tragedy comes strength, a strength as a community to come together in time of crisis, a strength to be resilient in the face of adversity, a strength to love one another in spite of our differences.”

A few local politicians were in attendance.

While Senator Bill Nelson was not there, Digna Alvarez, his Tampa aide, read a statement from her boss. “Although I’m unable to attend, I thank you for your leadership and support in the aftermath of last year’s Pulse shooting tragedy,” Alvarez read. “I hope that the festivities serve not only as a celebration of past triumph but also as an inspiration for future ones.”

Luis Viera, the newest member of the Tampa City Council, said he looks at the issue of LGBT rights as a father.

“I’ve got a ten-year-old son, and you know what? If I ever had a son or daughter who was gay or lesbian, I wouldn’t want anybody to tell that they’re a second-class citizen, because of how God made them as. That’s how I see this issue,” he said.

Councilman Guido Maniscalco was also there; he had recently introduced an ordinance banning conversion therapy in Tampa. That’s the controversial practice used to try to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

As voted on by the Council earlier this month, state-licensed therapists and counselors would be fined $1,000 for a first offense and $5,000 for repeat offenses.

“In 2012, the previous Council moved forward to make a domestic partner registry, and this just builds along the lines of that community support, the support for human rights,” said Maniscalco. He told the crowd he decided to bring the issue to the forefront after speaking with his friends in the gay community about how similar ordinances has been passed in Miami Beach and West Palm Beach.

“Tampa has been so forward thinking and progressive, we should do it here. Hopefully, we can continue inspiring other cities or if they take it to the state level, then great,” he says. “I just want to maintain that reputation where people are welcome, we want you here. Tampa is stronger together.”

A second hearing on the ban on conversion therapy is set for the council’s April 6 meeting.

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Jacob Smith says intensity of electorate will help Rick Kriseman win re-election

Rick Kriseman will make his case re-election this year, mostly based upon the progress St. Petersburg has made since his inauguration as mayor in January 2014.

“We came in with a lot of really big, sort of thorny projects, and the mayor has taken a lot of them by the horns and made them happen,” says Jacob Smith, Kriseman’s newly minted campaign manager.

Among those “thorny” projects are a pathway toward a new Pier, the upcoming groundbreaking for a new police station and what Smith dubs ‘The Kriseman infrastructure plan’: the $304 million investment to fix the city’s aging pipes and sewage plants.

Smith says the mayor looks forward to having a “public conversation” with voters on infrastructure overhaul. Kriseman is also poised to give details about how the money will be spent, where the revenues to pay for it will come from, and what shape the project will ultimately take.

“A lot of people will say that they don’t know — they know we’re spending that money, but they don’t know exactly what the mechanics of that project are,” Smith said.

The infrastructure plan emerged after what is inescapably Kriseman’s lowest moment as mayor — his handling of the sewage situation late last summer.

After a whistleblower had come forth September alleging the mayor falsely claimed millions of gallons of wastewater spilled from a treatment plan wasn’t a safety hazard, lawmakers called for more oversight. That resulted in the Department of Environmental Protection laying down a mandate for fixing the problem or pay a significant penalty.

Smith prefers to look at the sunnier side of that imbroglio, saying that the mayor deserves props for finally acting on a decades-in-the-making problem in regards to sewage management.

The 27-year-old Smith is a Fort Lauderdale native who was Kriseman’s field director during the 2013 campaign and has added a lot more to his CV since then.

After the mayor’s decisive victory over Bill Foster in November 2013, he went to work immediately on Alex Sink‘s bid for Congress in the special election against David Jolly.

In 2014, he worked as a field director for Charlie Crist’s gubernatorial effort and then began work from the start in early 2015 on Hillary Clinton‘s run for the White House. He was living in Brooklyn before moving down to St. Petersburg recently to devote all his energies to the mayor’s race.

Discussion about the sewage situation segues quickly into more positive news, such as an online Fiscal Times report published in January that of the most fiscally stable cities showed that St. Petersburg was listed as the 23rd best city in the country (of cities of more than 200,000 population) and first in Florida.

“Since Mayor Kriseman has taken office, St. Petersburg’s credit rating has gone up, and we’ve become a city more attractive to lenders,” says Smith. “We’ve been called the most financially responsible city in the state.”

Conventional wisdom has it that only one man stands between Kriseman and another four years in office — former Mayor Rick Baker.

There is no bigger guessing game in St. Pete politics than figuring out what Baker will do. Smith says it won’t matter who his main opponent is, Kriseman continue to do his thing.

A favorite criticism among Republicans is that Kriseman has been too partisan.

“Since 2013 Mayor Rick Kriseman has shown he is committed to progressive, left wing policies that have done nothing to improve the quality of life the City of St. Petersburg has come to expect,” says Nick DiCeglie, chair of the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee.

“This absent leadership has led to an infrastructure failure that has resulted in raw sewage being dumped into Tampa Bay. This is unacceptable and change must and will occur in city hall later this year.”

Referring to his support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality and respect for immigrant rights, Smith says that the mayor represents the values that St. Pete residents believe in. “What the mayor really wants is a city that is welcoming to all, that respects everyone and that we are living up to our best potential and our best values,” he says.

There is no question that the Democratic left has been energized since last fall’s election. In January, Kriseman took part in the Women’s’ March, an event that drew more than 20,000 to the downtown area, the largest such rally in the city’s history.

Smith predicts the intensity among progressive voters will have implications in the mayoral contest and appears to have Baker on his mind when he thinks of who their main opponent will be.

“At the end of the day, Rick Kriseman has always stood by Barack Obama, endorsed Hillary Clinton. Campaigned for her,” he says. “Any opponent he gets is going to be on the other side of the issue, right?”

“It’s going to be somebody who stood on stage with people like Sarah PalinPaul Ryan, Mitt Romney, where Rick Kriseman was out knocking on doors for Barack Obama, right?” he says. “I think that is a dynamic that will absolutely come into this race. A lot of the most fired up people right now are the people who stand with Rick on a lot of issues.”

Whether it’s Baker, Foster or another Republican who will step up and try to take down the incumbent, it’s getting close to the time when that candidate will have to step up.

The Kriseman campaign announced this week he has the backing of half the current City Council in November and has already raised $260,000.

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Jeremy Ring says he’ll decide on CFO race after 2017 Session

Former Broward County Democratic state Senator Jeremy Ring said Thursday he’ll likely decide on whether he will run for Chief Financial Officer after the current legislative session concludes in May.

Coincidentally, that’s when Governor Rick Scott is expected to name a replacement for current CFO Jeff Atwater, who announced earlier this year that he would step down from the Cabinet-level position to take a job at Florida Atlantic University.

Last year, Ring told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that he was thinking of running for Governor in 2018, but says that idea only came after the paper wrote an editorial that said he’d be the best candidate for the job.

“That got my ego going a bit,” he said on WMNF-88.5 FM with this reporter. “It cost probably $75 million to run for governor in the state of Florida, so I’m not quite sure right now.”

Ring is a New England native who attended Syracuse University before beginning a lucrative career with Yahoo, starting in New York City before migrating to the West Coast from 1995-2001.

He then moved to Broward County to work for a new company before deciding 2004 that he wanted to be a state senator, where he said he wanted to help create an “innovation economy” when he was elected in 2006.

He admits it was a culture shock to go from Silicon Valley to South Florida.

“You go down (Highway) 101 between San Francisco and San Jose today you see Apple and Facebook and eBay and Twitter, you name the companies,” he says, “and then you go down I-95 between Palm Beach and Miami and you see strip clubs and pill mills, and that’s sort of world.”

He said he was motivated to create an “innovation economy” in the state, and discovered that Florida universities were doing plenty of innovating, but weren’t commercializing on any of those patents. “So I wanted to create an environment where we could have an innovation economy where we could commercialize our innovation in Florida.”

Regarding current legislation, Ring predicted that after the Legislature produces a medical marijuana bill this spring, activists will probably go to the courts, a la what environmental groups did after the Legislature failed to implement Amendment One a couple of years ago.

Regarding the other Democrats who are in the mix as potential gubernatorial candidates next year, Ring speaks highly of Orlando attorney and entrepreneur John Morgan and Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine.

“When you think about Philip Levine, there’s nothing teleprompter driven about him,” Ring says. “We need people who are going to inspire and inspire you in that way. He’s not going to bore you.”

You can hear the entire interview here.

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American Bridge slams Mario Diaz-Balart for ‘selling out’ to support GOP health care plan

With just hours left before Congress’ vote on the American Health Care Act, President Donald Trump and GOP House leadership are doing whatever it takes to get the 216 votes necessary for passage of the bill.

In the case of Miami Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, could change in U.S. policy toward Cuba implemented under the Obama administration be the catalyst to lock in his support?

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Diaz-Balart sought assurances from White House officials that the president would maintain his campaign pledge to reverse Obama’s recognition of diplomatic ties with the Raul Castro-led Cuban government.

Diaz-Balart supported the health care plan in the Budget Committee last week, which narrowly passed on a 19-17 vote. A White House official said there was no explicit discussion of trading his vote for a promise on Cuba.

The bill has already been changed to get additional GOP support.

The Times reported in that same story that New York Republican Claudia Tenney said she was likely to support the bill after House leaders added a section that would shift Medicaid costs from New York’s counties to the state government.

The horse trading brings back memories of when the shoe was on the other foot eight years ago, when Barack Obama and congressional Democrats were doing everything in their power to get enough buy-in from Senate Democrats to back the Affordable Care Act in late 2009.

First, there was the $300 million increase for Medicaid in Louisiana designed to win the vote of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in what was derisively referred to as the “Louisiana Purchase.”

Next came the infamous “Cornhusker kickback” to get Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson’s vote. That involved giving Nebraska a permanent exemption from the state share of Medicaid expansion. That meant federal taxpayers would have had to kick in an additional $45 million in the first decade (a provision ultimately removed from the bill).

There was also “Gator-aide,” the label given to the request from Florida Sen. Bill Nelson for the Senate version of the ACA. That included a formula for protecting certain Medicare Advantage enrollees from facing what could be billions in cuts. The formula would only apply to five states, most notably Florida, where 800,000 of the state’s 1 million Medicare Advantage enrollees would be exempted from cuts.

Referring to the Times story, Shripal Shah, vice president of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, took a swipe at Diaz-Balart.

Shah said: “No matter what his justification, here are the facts: Congressman DiazBalart is selling out millions of Americans in order to cut billions in taxes for a few millionaires, and this bill might not have even be alive today had it not been for his vote in committee. The White House may have been able to buy his vote, but the public is going to hold him accountable.”

A request for comment from Diaz-Balart was not immediately returned.

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Gus Bilirakis introduces late resolution removing Medicare ‘Donut Hole’ in GOP health care bill

Hours before Congress votes on the American Health Care Act, Tarpon Springs Republican Gus Bilirakis is introducing a resolution calling Congress to support the elimination of the Medicare Part D coverage gap — known as the “Donut Hole” — as part of the AHCA.

“Seniors in my district have expressed concerns about rumored changes to Part D under the American Health Care Act,” Bilirakis said Thursday morning. “As a result, I introduced this resolution to ensure that the ‘Donut Hole’ coverage gap will continue to be filled-in and to reaffirm our commitment to seniors.

“I believe this provision of the American Health Care Act truly helps the millions who rely on Part D, and I urge all my colleagues to get on board.”

Currently, 39 million Medicare beneficiaries rely on Medicare Part D for necessary prescription drugs. A study from the Healthcare Leadership Council found 89 percent of seniors are satisfied with their coverage under Part D.

However, beneficiaries will reach a coverage gap — the Donut Hole — when total drug costs exceed $3,700; catastrophic coverage does not kick in until costs reach $8,071. Under the American Health Care Act, the Donut Hole will continue to be phased out by 2020 (as it was under the Affordable Care Act).

Under the American Health Care Act, the Donut Hole will continue to be phased out by 2020 (as it was under the Affordable Care Act).

Bilirakis already announced his support for the bill, but more than two dozen of his Republican colleagues oppose the legislation (as of now), which could doom its passage when it is voted on later Thursday. His resolution is aimed at winning over some of those reluctant GOP House members.

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House advances bill allowing guns in private religious schools

A bill in the Florida legislature that could arm teachers with guns in private religious schools passed the House Judiciary Committee Thursday.

The legislation, sponsored by Polk City Republican Neil Combee (HB 849), would carve out certain religious private schools from Florida law that prohibits anyone except law enforcement officers from carrying guns in K-12 schools and colleges and universities, regardless of whether those schools are public or private. The decision about whether to allow concealed guns in these schools would be made by the owner of the church/school.

Doug Bankson, an Apopka City Commissioner and a pastor, said that this is very much a “real world issue.”

“Our public institutions are more and more a target, and our churches have become more and more a target,” he said, adding that the majority of his student body are minorities. “We need [an]  opportunity to protect them.”

Others disagreed.

“This bill would leave a gaping hole in the laws that are designed to protect our schools and keep guns out of school, said Gaye Valamont, a volunteer with the gun control group, Moms Demand Action.

“This bill does not solve the problem of protecting our children.”

“This is not a bill about guns on school property,” said Eric Friday with Florida Carry. “This is about private religious organizations having the right to regulate the use of their property, and who has the right to carry on their private property.”

Dania Beach Democrat Joseph Geller agreed with Combee that religious institutions should have the right to decide on their own if they want to allow arms on their campuses. But the bottom line for him was that “guns and schools do not mix.”

Geller said that the current law in place banning guns in schools is a good one, and “the chances of something going wrong are too great.”

Tampa Republican Shawn Harrison said it was critical to “tread very carefully” on such a sensitive issue, but praised Combee as having “threaded the needle” perfectly in how he crafted his bill.

In closing on the bill, Combee blasted gun-free zones which are on many school campuses, calling them “dumb.”

“If someone wants to do harm to our children … or the public, they’d like nothing better than to have a gun free zone, they got no opposition,” he said. “That’s the dumbest thing in the world.”

There is currently no companion bill in the state Senate.

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Tougher texting-and-driving ban sails through Senate committee

Legislation to make texting while driving a primary offense was passed Wednesday unanimously by the Senate Transportation Committee.

Miami Republican Rene Garcia sponsored the legislation (SB 144).

Florida was one of the later states in the country to adopt anti-texting laws, not doing so until 2013. But the fact that it’s a secondary offense has led critics to call the law toothless. Under Garcia’s bill, police could pull over drivers for texting while driving.

In the past, some lawmakers have expressed concerns that such legislation could allow law enforcement to profile black motorists racially.

“The current Florida ban on texting laws is almost impossible to enforce, and the general public knows this,” said Lake City Police Chief Argatha Gilmore, speaking as a representative of the Florida Police Chiefs Association. “If texting while driving was made a primary offense, we believe it would deter this potentially deadly driving behavior.”

“As an industry, we lose between five and ten of our employees are killed nationwide by people who are distracted while driving,” said Charlie Latham, Florida Chair of the National Waste and Recycling Association.

Voting for the bill was Ocala Republican Dennis Baxley, who outed himself as a chronic abuser of texting while driving, adding that he’s always opposed such bills in the past because it represented another loss of personal freedom.

Baxley said that he didn’t believe texting was a problem per se, but distracted driving is.

There is a companion bill in the House sponsored by Democrat Emily Slosberg (HB 47).

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Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority report says it contributes over $1 billion to local economy

A report paid for by the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) says the agency’s strategic investment planning decisions have generated $1.2 billion in local and state gross domestic product and a combined 13,200 jobs.

The Tampa based-agency is best known for owning and operating the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, the 14-mile all-electronic, limited-access toll road in Hillsborough County.

The reportwritten by the Center for Urban Transportation (CUTR), begins with the premise that increased transportation accessibility promotes the clustering of business and residential units in proximity to expressway points of access. “That in turn leads to a larger pool of workers and customers, which in turn positively affects business firm location decisions, sales, and employment levels,” the report says.

Currently, there are about 14,400 businesses operating within one mile of the Selmon Expressway. These businesses employ approximately 137,000 workers and represent 23.3 percent of all establishments operating in Hillsborough County.

This study found that by improving business and residential accessibility, THEA’s strategic investments increased business clustering and specialization, resulting in 14.1 percent more business establishments than in comparable areas within Hillsborough County over the past 10 years. Increased specialization resulted in a 5.4 percent higher employment growth rate than comparable locations for the same time period.

The CUTR authors say that the Expressway “produces substantial benefits in terms of travel time reductions, increased safety, and a decrease in harmful emissions.”  It finds that the Selmon Expressway saves its users $274 million annually.

The authors of report lay out how they arrived at their conclusions:

Each person saves on average 3.8 hours in travel time per year. This represents a 7.4 percent reduction in the 52 hours of travel time spent annually in congested conditions. Households save $16.2 million per year in out-of-pocket transportation costs due to reduced vehicle fuel and operating expenditures. Savings on fuel and vehicle operating costs represent money available for other household expenditures. These savings benefit households at the lower ranges of income, representing a consistent gain in purchasing power. Businesses also benefit from improved travel conditions through savings of about $9.8 million in congested travel time and in fuel and operating costs.

The state legislature has attempted to shut down THEA on several casions during its history and transfer ownership to the Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise. The most recent attempt occurred in March, 2011 when the legislature attempted to pass a bill that would eliminate THEA, the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, and Mid-Bay Bridge Authority ostensibly to save the state money. That plan was ultimately scuttled.

The CUTR report comes out just a few weeks after another local government agency, Port Tampa Bay, is under fire after it was reported that it is lagging way behind other Florida ports in terms of the number of containers coming in.

Although a report issued late last year found that the Port brought in more than $17 billion to the local economy, that fact has been superseded by a recent report by WFTS-Channel 28 that the port, the largest in size in the state, shipped a total of 39,761 cargo containers in 2015, much less than smaller ports like Jacksonville (755,452), Miami and Port Everglades (716,182). That’s despite the fact that its CEO, Paul Anderson, makes an annual salary of $382,287, more than the CEO’s of ports in New York and Los Angeles.

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With little debate, Senate advances Greg Steube’s courthouse carry gun bill

A proposal to allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to store firearms with security officers at courthouses advanced in the Florida Senate Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Greg Steube (SB 616), is one of 10 firearms-related pieces of legislation the Sarasota Republican has introduced in the current Session. Unlike many of those proposals, however, opposition to this bill isn’t as fevered in comparison.

Steube added an amendment to his bill that would define what a courthouse is. The current statute (790.06) explicitly refers to a “courthouse.”

“Would you agree that there are persons approaching a courthouse or going there on matters that might be emotional to them and that encouraging a person to bring with them such a weapon such as a knife or gun even to the front of a courthouse might be problematic?” St. Petersburg Democrat Darryl Rouson asked Steube.

Steube replied that under current Florida law, any citizen could walk up to the front of a courthouse with a license to carry. “I just can’t enter the courthouse, because 790.06 specifically says that’s a gun-free zone,” Steube said.

Like Rouson, Steube is an attorney, and he agreed with his Democratic colleague in the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee that there many people who go to court in a highly emotional state. But Steube added that attorneys are already sitting ducks for a disgruntled member of the public when they enter and leave a courthouse because they’re not allowed to carry a firearm while approaching or exiting a courthouse.

Broward County public official Edward G. Labrador said his county doesn’t want any guns in public buildings. He stated that courthouses are county facilities, not state facilities.

“Frankly, we should have a say in deciding whether or not guns can come into our facilities,” he said, adding that the proposed law requires court security officials to hold on to the firearms in a secure area.

“We just built a courthouse for $300 million, and it doesn’t have the capability of having storage facilities of all of the members who are going to bring their concealed weapons,” Labrador said, calling it an unfunded mandate.

Rouson said this would not even be an issue were it not for Steube being stopped by private security guards and a sheriff’s deputy on Valentine’s Day when he tried to enter a Manatee County courthouse.

Steube corrected him, saying that in fact he was stopped going into the clerk of the court’s office in Manatee County. 

The bill passed on a party-line vote, 4-3.

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Ferry adds routes to shuttle Rays fans to St. Pete in April

With the Major League Baseball season poised to begin in St. Petersburg in 11 days, the Tampa Bay Rays, PSTA and the Cross-Bay Ferry are working together to make it easier for Tampa residents to attend Tampa Bay Rays baseball games.

The ferry will adjust its schedule and add special, later routes to connect from Tampa to St. Petersburg and back in April, the last scheduled month for the ferry pilot project. The announcement was made aboard the vessel at the ferry dock in downtown St. Petersburg on Wednesday.

“This is a fantastic way for Tampa fans to help kick off baseball season in Tampa Bay,” said project advisor Ed Turanchik. “The ferry has been a wonderful addition to this area, and we are thrilled to work with the Rays to support such a fun way for fans to get to games.”

Officials that after passengers arrive in St. Petersburg, PSTA  will pick up the tab in providing free rides between the ferry dock and Tropicana Field for every Rays home game in April (with one exception, on April 21).

The Tampa Streetcar is also getting into the act. They will reduce the daily cost of a pass on the streetcar for ferry riders from $5.00 to $2.50 in April.

Officials with the ferry announced earlier this month that they had sold more than 6,000 tickets in February, the best month yet since the pilot project began operating between Tampa and St. Petersburg in November.

There was a total of 6,070 tickets purchased last month, a 57-percent rise from January, when just 3,867 people bought tickets, the lowest monthly total to date.

The service is scheduled to run through the end of April. Then local officials in the four local governments that put up $350,000 each to help fund it — Tampa, St. Petersburg and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties — will have discussions about maintaining it going forward. It’s being operated in concert with Seattle-based HMS Ferries.

The Rays open the MLB season by hosting the New York Yankees on Sunday, April 2 at 1:10 p.m.

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