Friday, December 11, 2009

The Fix Was In

No wonder students and College of William & Mary officials never negotiated in good faith during this year’s deliberations of the Focus Group on the 3-person rule.

They knew they didn’t have to.

The fix was in.

With the exception of a few footnotes and codicils, the ordinance to expand the city’s 3-person limit on the number of unrelated persons to four wasn’t much different than the deal secretly negotiated by city staff, Mayor Jeanne Zeidler, Vice Mayor Clyde Haulman and leaders of the Student Assembly in November 2008.

The three months of work by the focus group? The multiple public hearings in front of the Planning Commission, which unanimously rejected the idea of expanding the 3-person rule in single-family homes near the college? Those were just for show. They were designed to give the appearance that council was listening to the public and to provide political cover for council and city staff to do what they’d already decided to do anyway.

In short, they were a charade.

Personally, I’d like to thank council for wasting my time for a year.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Okay, now what?

As a result of this month’s elections, Virginians now have split government.

At the state level The Party That Has No Intention of Governing represents us and at the national level The Party That Is Afraid to Govern represents us.

At the state level, that might work out okay over the next four years.

Based on the most recent reports of tax revenue collected, the Fiscal Year 2010 budget is going to be at least $1.6 billion out of balance when the General Assembly convenes in January. Once that problem is fixed, we can look forward to continuing budget gaps in the FY 2011-12 budget, which will be passed this year. The shortfalls in that budget could reach $3 billion by the end of the biennium, unless the economy turns around more forcefully than anyone is now predicting.

In that climate, there’s not going to be much governing done. So voters may have put the right party in charge by electing Bob McDonnell governor and leaving a Republican majority in control of the House of Delegates.

The next governor and General Assembly are going to have to go at the budget with a hatchet. Both the previous Democratic governor’s Mark Warner and Tim Kaine had to go through rounds of budget cuts – but at least Republicans should enjoy it.

Because, according to their political rhetoric, they are the party that wants a smaller government that does less.

Now is their chance.

Those nagging problems that the state has faced for a decade, like transportation funding, teacher salaries, mental health funding, low unemployment compensation?

Forget about them.

At least for the next four years.

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ten things about Tuesday’s elections

1. A year is an eternity in politics – Who would have thought on election night 2008, when Mark Warner destroyed Jim Gilmore in a U.S. Senate race, Democrats won the majority of Congressional seats in Virginia and Barack Obama became the first Democrat to carry Virginia in a presidential election since 1964, that election night 2009 would feature a landslide statewide sweep by Virginia Republicans? That should put in perspective claims that Tuesday’s elections serve as a preview of what will happen in next year’s mid-term Congressional elections. A lot can happen in a year.

2. What Creigh Deeds and Mary Sue Terry have in common – Tuesday’s election was similar to 1993, when George Allen won in a landslide over Mary Sue Terry. In both cases, a large percentage of blame was placed on an “unpopular” Democratic president. In both cases a bad economy, which forced an increasingly unpopular Democratic governor to repeatedly make cuts in the state budget, probably had more to do with the results. Bill Clinton in 1993 and Obama this year are being blamed for the loss. Probably a bad rap in both cases. While Clinton was genuinely unpopular in Virginia in 1993, Obama’s approval rating is equal to the share of the vote he garnered last year, about 53%. Exit polls Tuesday showed that 70% of Virginia votes said the president didn’t have anything to do with their vote for governor. Of course the coalition that elected Obama, young people, African-Americans and suburban independents, either didn’t show up for Deeds Tuesday or voted for Republican Bob McDonnell. That has a lot to do with a slow economy and the resulting loss of status of Gov. Tim Kaine. Like Doug Wilder’s, Kaine’s troubles came home to roost for his potential Democratic successor. One reason that happened is that Deeds, like Terry, ran a miserable campaign.

3. Virginians won’t vote for the “mean guy” - Deeds’ campaign never gave anyone a reason to vote for him, concentrating on reasons to vote against McDonnell. That was a critical mistake. Although McDonnell’s college thesis, which evidenced hostility to working women, gays, unmarried fornicators and divorce, served a purpose for the Deeds campaign in cutting into McDonnell’s lead, the Democrats never followed it up with a positive message. They just kept pounding the thesis story. Most voters indicated that they thought Deeds was running a negative campaign. Uh oh. As 2005 loser Jerry Kilgore could have told Deeds, that won’t work in Virginia. You can make comparisons, you can even go a little bit negative, but if Virginia voters think you’ve been rude or mean, you’re toast.

4. Will the “McDonnell model” catch on with the national GOP? – McDonnell won by running as a moderate, mainstream candidate primarily interested in pocketbook issues, as “Bob for Jobs.” That’s not who he had been for 14 years in the legislature, when he was much more interested in bills restricting abortion and making it more difficult to get a divorce than he was in generating jobs. But it’s the image he made stick with voters through a nearly error-free campaign. He disassociated himself from the screamers on the right, the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party who are busy yelling “Socialist” at a president who hasn’t even shown himself as much of a liberal yet. He didn’t even criticize Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, which seemed to befuddle the president himself. The other model for Republicans is to go full “old mad white guy” and embrace the Glen Beck/Rush Limbaugh model of conservatism. That didn’t work out so well for them in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, where a Tea Party type forced the mainstream Republican out of the race and Democrats captured a seat that Republicans had held for more than 100 years.

5. Democrats should remember those Republican “part-time governor lines – I know Bob McDonnell. He’s an ambitious guy. I wouldn’t be surprised if next spring, after the General Assembly has finished its work, we see him start to accept speaking engagements in Iowa and New Hampshire and other early 2012 presidential primary battlegrounds. His victory Tuesday makes him one of the brightest new stars in the Republican universe. He could attract a good deal of support. He combines Mike Huckabee’s appeal to the Religious Right with Mitt Romney’s slickness and ability to run to the middle, without Romney’s documented record of flip-flops or Mormon religion. Even if McDonnell chooses not to explore the presidential waters, he’d be an attractive vice presidential candidate, particularly for a nominee like Romney or Sarah Palin, who comes from outside the GOP’s Dixie base camp.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Obama outfoxes Fox

From the outpouring of criticism in the media over the Obama White House’s decision to treat Fox News as what it is – the propaganda arm of the Republican Party – instead of as a legitimate news source, it appears that the presidents has hit a nerve.

It may be that we in the legitimate media are sensitive because the president has had the courage to do what we should have done a decade ago, calls things what they are and out Fox.

The news media are not in the habit of turning their guns on other media outlets.

And because of that, we’ve allowed the Fox masquerade to go on for years, poisoning our political culture and debasing journalism.

And let’s be clear about this, what Fox does isn’t what we in America call journalism. Rupert Murdoch, the Australian, who owns Fox News, has brought the partisan approach to news that’s found in the rest of the world to America. Given that Fox News has the highest rating of any of the cable news networks, apparently there was a ready market in the U.S. for news that only reinforces people’s prejudice and ignorance.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Get your money for nothin' and your roads for free

As was inevitable, transportation has become a major issue in the race for governor.

Democrat Creigh Deeds, apparently emulating Richard Nixon in 1968, has a secret plan to fix the transportation problem, which he’ll tell us more about after he’s elected. He has said he wouldn’t rule out a tax increase, which means he’s thinking about the problem in slightly more realistic terms than Republican Bob McDonnell.

McDonnell, to his credit, has come up with a detailed transportation plan. Unfortunately, like most of the Republican plans over the last five years, there’s not a lot of real money in it. Like Dire Straits, McDonnell plans to get his money for nothing.

Because McDonnell’s plan is another GOP “all gain, no pain” plan. It contains a lot of real debt, $4 billion in bonds, and a lot of theoretical money to service that debt.

The plan recycles some ideas that House Republicans have floated over the last several years.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

We can put a man on the moon but...

I remember the moon landing in 1969. A precocious 10-year-old, I was allowed to stay up late to see something my parents realized was truly special.

It was truly special too, and still is. Man’s leap into the void and successful touchdown on another celestial body is perhaps the most amazing achievement in human history.

It was one of the last things pretty much everybody in America agreed on. Except for some bean counters on the left who would rather have seen the money spent on human services programs and some tin-foil hat types on the right who thought the whole thing was faked in the desert somewhere, everybody in America, everybody in most of the world, came together in celebrating the accomplishment.

Certainly it ranks up there with Columbus crossing the Atlantic to the Americas, even if we haven’t followed up an on it as quickly.

That’s probably because of the expense. Any country could outfit a few ships and set out for the New World. Only the very richest countries could hope to even land a robot instruments package on another world, much less human explorers.

Still, it’s disappointing that NASA is only now considering returning humans to the moon. After all, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick had predicted humans would be orbiting Jupiter by 2001.

The moon launch also became something of a gauge of human and technological progress, usually in phrases that began “We can put a man on the moon but we still can’t (fill in the blank).”

Here’s a few thoughts along those lines to ponder on this 40th anniversary of he moon landing.

We put a man on the moon 40 years ago, but……

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Monday, June 29, 2009

The fault, Horatio, lies not in our politicians but in our selves

The Center of Public Integrity doesn’t think Virginia’s legislators have much.

A report released last week gives Virginia an “F” on the transparency of legislators’ financial disclosure statements and ranks Virginia 31st among the 50 states. Among the center’s complaints are that legislators fail to identify clients that they represent in court and before state agencies.

Understand that the center’s complaint isn’t that lawmakers are violating the law, but that the law itself is defective.

The fault for that lies, not with the General Assembly, but with Virginia’s voters.

Having worked as a legislative staffer and as part of state party staff, I can tell you that good government regulations that would fix those problems are disdained both by our elected representatives – of both parties – and their staffs.

Staff doesn’t want to stop the flow of campaign contribution gravy that pays their salaries and members don’t want to turn off the spigot of legalized bribes that insures they’ll have an easier time being re-elected. And they don’t feel they have to.

Because you don’t care.

“That doesn’t move one vote,” a senior staffer once told me of a proposal to limit campaign contributions to General Assembly and statewide candidates. The same is true of other “good government” initiatives like non-partisan redistricting. You, the voters, just don’t care about that.

And he’s right. The lack of any effective limits on campaign contributions hasn’t imperiled any incumbent’s time in office. Quite the opposite.

In case you don’t know, Virginia is one of the few states with no limits on campaign contributions. If you, or more likely Dominion Resources, wanted to give a candidate for governor a million dollars, that’s perfectly okay under Virginia law. As long as he reports the contribution.

Virginia politicians have gone for the “full disclosure” route rather than limit campaign contributions under the logic that “the public will decide” if a contribution was improper.

Except that you the public are not going to take up the time to look up who gave how much money to whom. And, if you do find out, usually as the result of an opponent’s negative advertising or a newspaper story, you don’t care.

We allow legislators to represent clients before state boards and agencies that they appoint and to practice law in front of judges that they elect, because you don’t care. It doesn’t affect your vote, so the politicians have no reason to change a system that benefits them.

That’s why Sen. Tommy Norment (R-3rd) didn’t think it was any big deal when he was appointed commissioner of accounts for Williamsburg and James City County. He didn’t even send out a press release. Because other legislators had held the same position before, some currently hold it and, with the exception of two cases, the voters haven’t cared.

He’s playing by the rules. The rules say there’s nothing wrong with him holding that position, to which he was appointed by a judge he voted to put on the bench.

When I wrote about that story last year we got a few letters and Last Word comments contending it was a conflict of interest. It’s not.

Virginia’s conflict of interest statute is so loosely written that, to be in violation, a member of the General Assembly would basically have to put in, and vote for, a bill that required the state treasurer to cut him a check. And, if the law specified that everybody in the state who looked like the legislator, or was the same height, or was in the same business also got the check, even that might pass muster.

Because you don’t care.

Richmond lobbyists aren’t shadowy figures who do their deals in secret. They wear their influence on their sleeves.

Sometimes, it’s rather comical. At about 4 p.m. on any day the General Assembly is in session you can see legislators in the halls searching for their “lobbyist of the day,” who’ll pick up the check for dinner. Sometimes lobbyists pick up checks for large groups of up to 100 that include legislators, their staff and sometimes even the press.

“If you can’t drink their whiskey and eat their steak and then vote against them the next day, you don’t belong here,” a veteran legislator once told me.

Unfortunately, the record shows that they more often vote for the folks with the whiskey and steaks.

That’s why Virginia is a bad state for underdogs. If you’re a tenant, you’ve got basically no rights that can be enforced in court against your landlord. If you’re a consumer, you’re left at the mercy of predatory businesses, like payday lenders. If you’re a lobbyist for Common Cause or the League of Women Voters pushing some “good government” reform, you won’t get the hearing that a big corporation will because you can’t afford to pick up dinner checks.

During roll call votes in the House of Delegates, you’ll often hear joking exhortations to “lean to the green.” It’s more than a joke. The side with the most “green” wins more often than not.

Lobbyist and legislators, of course, will tell you that the meals and the gifts and the campaign cash only buys “access” That’s not true. They buy bills and votes. Look up you favorite legislator on the Virginia Public Access Project’s website. See who their largest contributors are and then check how many bills they sponsor that benefit that donor and how many votes they cast for and against that donor’s interests.

It’s legalized bribery. But there’s nothing wrong with it, because that’s the system that’s in place.

Because you don’t care.

Jeff Shapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote his Sunday column about a new member of the FBI’s public corruption squad who’s looking around the General Assembly to get the lay of the land.

The FBI in Richmond has caught a couple of members of the Richmond City Council with their hands in the cookie jar over the past several years and successfully prosecuted them for bribery. They got caught with the money in their hands, more or less.

Members of the General Assembly are smarter than that.

I predict that FBI agent will see a lot of corruption at the Capitol. But very little of it will be against the law.

Because you don’t care.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Political sex scandals: Why do we care?

The Republican field for the 2012 presidential race shrank Wednesday as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford revealed that he’d been carrying on an affair with a woman in Argentina.

Sanford had vaulted into prominence by threatening to refuse some of the federal stimulus money, which endeared him to hard core conservatives and projected him onto the list of possible GOP candidates in 2012.

Sanford’s admission comes on the heels of a similar confession by Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign. Last year, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, resigned and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, was embarrassed by revelations that they had each patronized prostitutes and Democrat John Edwards destroyed his political career with an extramarital affair that may have produced a child.

On each occasion, and in the case of President Bill Clinton in which a consensual sex act between two adults was exaggerated into a constitutional crisis, the news media poured out all the sordid details to a voyeuristic American public and the professional scolds had a field day.

Why? Who cares?

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Monday, June 22, 2009

The lobbyists are about to beat us again

We the people are about to get kneecapped by the special interests yet again.

And Barack Obama is about to fail to deliver on the most important promise he made to the American people. Unless the American people get up off the couch, turn off the television and make their voices heard.

Support for a public option in health care reform – that is support for any real health care reform – is ebbing even among Democrats in Congress in the face of intensive lobbying and big-money bribery (in the form of campaign contributions) from the big insurance, pharmaceutical and health maintenance companies.

That’s despite the fact that more than 70% of Americans say they support a single payer, government option.

Which they should, because it’s the one way that the United States will cut its ridiculous health care costs, while insuring universal coverage. It’s the one way to force the insurance companies to get serious about cleaning up their own houses, if they are forced to compete with a public option, which is likely to be cost less and be run more efficiently.

Part of the problem with the health care debate we’ve been having in this country is that proponents of universal health care have presented the issue poorly. They’ve focused on the uninsured. Any reasonable proposal for health care reform will cover the uninsured as a matter of course.

But proponents of health care reform should be talking to the rest of us, the vast mass of the American public that is being cheated by our current health care system that benefits only insurance companies, Big Pharma and a few large health care providers.

They should be talking to those of us who have health care provided through our employers but every year we see premiums, deductibles and co-pays increase and coverage shrink.

They should be talking to the millions of Americans, many of whom think of themselves as middle class, who have to delay or forego needed tests or treatments because they can’t afford the co-pay. (If your insurance covers 80% of a $10,000 MRI that leaves you with a $2,000 bill. Not everyone has $2K on hand.)

They should be talking to the majority of the American middle class who live one catastrophic health issue away from financial ruin. Medical expenses are the single greatest cause of bankruptcies in the United States. (This surprised me – I would have thought it was divorce.)

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Financial Safeguards: A little late, not nearly enough

Congress and the Obama administration finally got around this week to considering reforms to the financial industry to try to avoid the type of theft, malfeasance and greed that ran the economy into the ground over the last few years.

Frankly, it’s surprising that this wasn’t a matter of first priority for the incoming administration.

One of the stated priorities of Obama’s administration was to restore confidence in the nation’s financial system. It eludes me, how that could be done when the lax rules, watered down regulations and paltry oversight that let a few Wall Street greed heads bring the nation to the brink of another Great Depression for the own personal gain remained in place.

How the faint-hearted proposed reforms will avoid a repeat of that situation also eludes me.

Financial reform should have been pretty straightforward. All it really required was a repeal of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed the Depression-Era Glass-Steagall Act and replaced the regulations that had kept our economy safe from Depression for 60 years with a deregulation scheme that turned Wall Street into the Wild West.

What was needed were restraints on the trading of derivatives that have no underlying value in the economy and turn the stock markets into casinos.

With all due respect to Colonial Williamsburg, which managed to offset $120 million in losses during the stock market plunge with put contracts on the Standard & Poor 500, such contracts add nothing to the economy of the nation. They don’t represent an investment, they represent a wager.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

The 3-person rule: What we have here is a failure to negotiate

So the Williamsburg City Council has decided to continue studying changes to the city’s 3-person rule.

Last week council told staff to look over the report from the citizen focus group that it appointed, which was unable to reach compromise after several months of work, and to try to pick out of it recommendations that were legal and sensible to help resolve the issue of student housing near the College of William & Mary.

I went to every meeting of that focus group. It was an educational experience.

I have to confess that I started out in sympathy with the students who want to expand or eliminate the rule that limits the number of unrelated persons who can live together in a home.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s the government’s business, outside of protecting public health and safety, to interfere in peoples’ living arrangements.

And I’m pretty sure the city can’t make a convincing case that four students living in a four-bedroom house constitute a threat to the public health or safety. In fact, since the sleeping arrangements inside the house aren’t any of the government’s business either, I’m not sure a case could be made to prohibit four students living in a two-bedroom apartment.

I also believed, and still do, that the neighbors’ complaints about partying and noise – which the city has other ordinances to address – were exaggerated.

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Deeds-McDonnell II: Steel Cage, Exploding Ring, Death Match?

The Democratic primary couldn’t have worked out better for politics junkies.
We’ve got a rematch of the closest statewide race in Virginia history, one in which both candidates will be well funded by their respective parties and one on which the eyes of the nation will focus.

It could get ugly.

But it doesn’t’ have to.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

It Doesn’t Matter If It Works

There’s a silly debate going on in this country between former Vice President Dick Cheney and those who haven’t embraced the dark side of the force.

Cheney, in a seemingly endless media tour designed to defend the legacy of the Bush administration – a task that makes Hercules cleaning the Aegean Stables seem like light work – is arguing that “enhanced interrogation techniques” – that’s torture to those of you not fluent in Evil Orwellian Newspeak – worked to keep America safe after 9/11.

Mr. Cheney’s legion of critics says he’s either out of his mind or outright lying and that torture didn’t produce useful intelligence that prevented terrorist attacks. Even Gen. David Patreus, the Bush administration’s designated savior of Iraq, has said the U.S. has violated the Geneva Conventions and called for a panel to investigate.

Basically, by arguing that torture was ineffective, Cheney’s critics also miss the central point:

It doesn’t matter whether torture worked or not!

The United States doesn’t (or shouldn’t) refrain from torture because we think it’s ineffective. We don’t torture because if we do we are not the people or the nation that our children learn about in school.

We don’t torture because it’s wrong. It wouldn’t be any less wrong, if it worked.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Commemorating our Crazy Aunt

Recently I was working on a story about what Williamsburg was doing for the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a project to which the state will devote considerable resources in hopes of driving tourism.

The answer to that question was, “Not much.” As far as Civil War history goes, Williamsburg doesn’t have all that much, certainly when compared to Richmond or Northern Virginia or the Shenandoah Valley.

But, while working on the piece, I began to wonder why we’re commemorating the War Between the States, as it was called when I learned Virginia history in junior high school, at all.

After all, short of conquest and occupation by a foreign power, isn’t a civil war pretty much the worst, most tragic thing that a nation can experience?

Does Spain celebrate its civil war? Does England?

And I expect that the area that will celebrate the most will the South. Which lost. And deserved to lose because it was on the wrong side of history, morality and the law. Thank goodness it lost. What a horrible place to live this would be had it not.

So to Germany and Japan, which like the Confederacy, deserved to lose and did, celebrate their role in World War II?

I expect the 150th festivities to be confined to the South because, in my experience, people in the rest of the country couldn’t care less about the Civil War. They’re over it.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

When the weird turn pro

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

_ Hunter Thompson

As an avid blog reader, I guess I’m about to lose my amateur status.

Welcome to the first installment of what I hope will be an ongoing conversation about Williamsburg, Virginia, politics and anything else that catches my, or your, interest.

Let me introduce myself.

I currently cover tourism, city government (sometimes it’s a little hard to tell where one of those stops and the other begins), state politics and government and various other topics (I’ve learned more about archeology over the last three years than I ever thought I’d know) for the Virginia Gazette, the semi-weekly community newspaper of Williamsburg, James City County and York County.

I’m a native Virginian, born and mostly bred here. My Dad was in the Air Force when I was child, so I also lived in Maine (which I was too young to remember), Texas and Montana. My Dad was a radar operator, so we got sent to all the scenic edges of the U.S.

I did my time in the Air Force as well, living in Texas, Mississippi and Germany.

After the Air Force, I went to VCU, majoring in political science.

I still live in Richmond, in a 100-year old house on one of the less fashionable streets in Church Hill.

I’m on my second (and last) marriage and I have two children, an 18-year-old daughter who just finished her freshman year of college and a 15-month-old son.

After college I went to work at the Lynchburg News & Advance, first on the night-copy desk, later as a reporter. I covered beats including Appomattox County, business, cops and courts and, for most of my tenure there, state politics and government.

Full disclosure: After leaving the News & Advance I went to work in Democratic politics. First as a consultant and campaign manager, then as a member of the Democratic Caucus Staff, then as a member of the party staff.

I didn’t go into politics because I particularly enjoyed the give and take of the political process. Some people do. I got involved in politics because I was interested in public policy. I saw it as a route to having an impact on statewide policy. That didn’t happen, largely because I worked on a lot of losing campaigns.

I don’t think I was mean enough for partisan politics. I was mean enough to deal with Republicans – in fact I often wanted to be meaner than my employers allowed me to be – but I wasn’t mean enough o deal with the machinations of fellow Democrats.

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