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Bill Banning Social Media Censorship Killed In Committee

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Wyoming State Capitol

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A measure aimed at preventing internet companies such as Twitter and Facebook from blocking certain opinions was killed in a House committee Monday as members expressed concern about the government telling businesses what they can do.

Senate File 100 was defeated by a vote of 3-6 in the House Judiciary Committee after members questioned whether the state should tell private companies how to moderate comments on their sites.

“What this is is the government telling companies what they can and cannot do,” said Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton. “It seems to be the opposite, conceptually, when we’re in this area of the First Amendment.”

The bill would prohibit interactive internet companies such as Twitter and Facebook from discriminating against a person who posted a message based on “viewpoint, race, religion and location.” Any person who believes a company violated the rule could seek compensation of $50,000.

Harriet Hageman, an attorney with the New Civil Liberties Alliance, said there have been examples of some statements being removed from social media, such as those from people who believe there were irregularities in the 2020 election. She also pointed to larger companies blocking access to a social media company popular conservatives.

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, said because such companies hold what amounts to a monopoly over social media, they should be regulated to guarantee residents are treated fairly.

“When you have a company that is basically a monopoly … you can regulate them or go for an anti-trust remedy,” she said. “And it’s an obligation of the government to protect our citizens when a company gets too large and too monopolistic.”

But several members of the committee noted that while guarantees of free speech exist in public spaces, those same protections do not exist in private businesses.

“My understanding is this is simply a matter of whether it is the public square or not,” said committee chair Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne. “Are we saying that Facebook ought to be the public square?”

The bill was opposed by several internet organizations, such as NetChoice and the Internet Association, which also questioned the state’s ability to dictate to private businesses.

Mike Smith, a representative for the Internet Association, noted Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment does not apply to private companies.

“This idea that the First Amendment applies to private property is kind of a dangerous one and one I wouldn’t want us to go down,” he said.

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Bill Limiting Public Health Orders Headed For Wyoming Senate Debate

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill limiting the duration of public health orders to just 10 days without renewal by top elected officials is one step closer to Gov. Mark Gordon’s desk.

House Bill 127 would limit public health orders issued by public health officers at the state and local level to 10 days in length. Any extensions could be approved only by local elected officials or the governor.

“I don’t think I need to explain the reasoning for this bill,” bill sponsor and House Speaker Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, told his Senate colleagues on Monday during a committee hearing. “This bill…tries to segregate the diseased or exposed population from the orders they may be under from a healthy population.”

Barlow said that after the first 10 days of a statewide or county-wide health order being enacted, the decision to keep healthy people under lockdown in addition to those who are sick becomes a political one.

People who are actually sick with an illness can individually be placed under health orders, such as quarantines, that should be issued by health officers, Barlow said.

However he added that since Wyoming’s county and state health officers are appointed, not elected, their powers should be limited when it comes to restricting the movement of healthy people.

“My belief, I took it back to the governing bodies participating in that health district,” Barlow said.

The bill was one of several introduced during the Legislature’s session to limit the authority of public health officers to restrict businesses and actions in the wake of the business shutdowns prompted by the coronavirus.

Wyoming Department of Health Deputy Director Stefan Johansson told the committee that his department didn’t have an official stance on the bill, but did have a few questions about certain situations that would or would not apply, although he did not get the opportunity to ask during the meeting.

Ultimately, three of the committee members chose to send the bill back to the Senate floor this week.

The Appropriations Committee review followed House approval of the bill last week. After being approved by the House, the bill was originally referred to the Senate Corporations Committee for review, but was then redirected to the Appropriations Committee. The Appropriations Committee usually only reviews bills that contain an expense. HB127 carries no expense.

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UW, Laramie Slammed As Water Bill Moves Forward; Sen. Scott Calls Bill “A Disgrace”

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Wyoming State Capitol

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The University of Wyoming and city of Laramie were both criticized for their unwillingness to settle a water dispute on Friday as the state Senate gave initial approval to a bill that would let the university develop its own water system without restriction by the city.

Senators voted to send House Bill 198 on to a second reading on Monday despite comments by several legislators that the bill should never have been submitted to the Legislature.

“In all candor, this bill is a disgrace,” said Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper. “(The UW and Laramie) have chosen to fight, chosen to lawyer up and brought a mess to us. But if we don’t pass this bill, there will be an extensive lawsuit and further difficulties and we may have to spend money on both the university and the city getting things right.”

According to testimony offered during a hearing by the Senate Corporations Committee on Thursday, the city began providing water at no cost to irrigate the university’s Jacoby Golf Course in the 1950s. In exchange the course was opened to the public.

In 2007, Laramie began charging for the irrigation water and Rep. Bob Nicholas, the bill’s sponsor, said the annual cost is now close to $200,000.

The university has drilled two wells on land adjoining the golf course and had planned to irrigate the course with those wells, however, the city adopted an ordinance forbidding other entities from transporting water across city boundaries without obtaining a permit. The ordinance blocked the university from using the wells to irrigate the course.

HB198 would prohibit any city or county from restricting the university as in the construction of water systems or the use of its water.

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the Senate the Legislature was left in a difficult situation.

“This is kind of a sticky wicket bill,” he said. “We’ve had an ongoing dispute pushing 15 years now between the university and the city of Laramie. This will cost us money if it doesn’t get solved via this means because we’ll go to court. It means we’ll pay out of pocket for attorneys for both sides.”

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said the bill amounted to “litigation in the Legislature,” where each side in the dispute tried to get favorable legislation introduced.

“Who was the fastest to make a power play with the Legislature and get a bill slammed through,” she said. “That’s what happened. That’s what this bill is. I am disappointed in the parties.”

Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, questioned why the Legislature would want to get involved in a local fight.

“This is about who could get here the quickest with the biggest gun,” he said. “It’s going to cost money and now we’re going to adjudicate a decision. This is just the wrong way to do this.”

The bill was approved for further debate on the Senate floor by a vote of 14-12.

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Committee OKs Bill For Ag Promotion Agency

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Wyoming State Capitol

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A bill to create a state agency to promote Wyoming’s agriculture industry through investments and marketing was approved by a House committee on Thursday despite concerns that it would increase the size of government.

Senate File 122, creating the Wyoming Agriculture Authority, was approved on a vote of 5-4 by the House Agriculture Committee for debate on the floor of the House.

The bill was prepared in response to problems created for Wyoming’s meat producers by the concentration of the nation’s meat packing industry in the hands of four large companies, said primary sponsor Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas.

“It acknowledges that this is not an even playing field,” he said. “It’s simply saying that this very fragile, unreliable meat processing situation we have is unacceptable to everybody.”

But Boner said the authority could also help with the promotion and marketing of other Wyoming agriculture commodities such as wool, sugar beets and grains.

“The current crisis has to do with meat processing, but who’s to say the next one won’t have to do with wheat or sugar beets or wool?” he said.

The bill would create a board to help the Legislature with the creation of the Agriculture Authority, which would then be authorized to sell revenue bonds to raise money to help with the creation of small and mid-sized meat processing plants.

The authority would also take over the marketing and promotion of Wyoming’s agricultural products from the state Department of Agriculture, Boner said, leaving the department responsible for consumer protection issues.

The measure was supported by several agriculture organizations as a way to help Wyoming meat producers break away from the influence of the four companies that control about 80% of the meat packing industry.

“This is a piece of legislation about which we are excited,” said Jim Magagna, director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “We see tremendous potential in being able to move forward with something like this to help, certainly our industry, the beef industry, but all of the agriculture industries in Wyoming.”

Several committee members said they were hesitant to approve the bill, given the fact there was little information on what the authority might cost.

“I agree this is a very important philosophy, but I am reticent to agree to something that is going to encumber the state … without knowing what that cost will actually be,” said Rep. Scott Heiner, R-Green River. “In my mind, we’re growing government here without knowing what it’s going to cost.”

But supporters argued the authority’s board would work with the Legislature’s Joint Agriculture Committee for up to two years to determine the details of the authority’s operation before the authority would take any official action.

Supporters on the committee said they also liked the idea of giving Wyoming’s meat producers a chance to operate independently of the major meat packing companies.

“What we’re hoping to do is bring back a little bit of the control from the major packing plants,” said Committee Chair Rep. John Eklund, R-Cheyenne. “This gives enough flexibility and latitude for businesses within Wyoming to take back a part of that market share.

Committee members amended the bill to require a plan for the authority to be in place by 2023 and then added  language saying if no such plan was developed by mid-2023, the authority would be dissolved.

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Bouchard Gun Bill Passes But Bouchard Votes Against It Stating Amendment Destroyed It

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would give the state the authority to find certain federal gun regulations invalid won final Senate approval Wednesday, but only after being largely rewritten.

Senators voted 24-6 in favor of Senate File 81, the “Second Amendment Preservation Act,” only after it was heavily amended to create a legal process by which the state could refuse to enforce certain federal gun rules.

“This … is an amendment that preserves the heart and soul and spirit of what we hoped to do with this legislation,” Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan. “It’s consistent with our constitutional right as a state to refuse to enforce laws we believe to be unconstitutional.”

One of the senators voting against the bill was Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, its primary sponsor, who complained the amended version destroyed the intent of the original bill.

“I’m going to vote no because I got drug into a fight with everybody because we wanted to pass a bill that does nothing,” he said.

As originally written, the bill said the state could declare as invalid any federal law that infringed on Second Amendment rights, including taxes on firearms and ammunition, registration of firearms and laws forbidding the ownership, use or possession of firearms by law-abiding citizens.

The bill would also have forbidden law enforcement officers from seizing weapons in response to federal laws and would have allowed officers and their local governments to be sued over such seizures.

But senators agreed with arguments by Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, that the state needed to establish some kind of process before simply declaring a federal law invalid.

Hicks’ amendment would allow groups of 25 or more to petition the attorney general with allegations a federal gun law was an unconstitutional infringement on the Second Amendment. If the attorney general and governor agreed, the governor would issue an executive order blocking local law enforcement officers from enforcing the federal law in question.

Senators agreed the process would be a better way to handle a difference over a federal law than simply declaring the law invalid, something several said states are not allowed to do under the Constitution.

“The amendment makes the bill palatable, it makes the bill constitutional,” said Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne.

Nethercott also implied the part of the original law allowing people to sue law enforcement officers for seizing weapons would keep attorneys employed.

“As you know, there’s a crisis in this state and this crisis is availability of lawyers,” she said, joking. “If you vote against (the new language), you’re voting against the lawyers and their ability to pay off their heavy student loan debt.”

The removal of the language allowing lawsuits against law enforcement officers was also welcomed by Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper.

“This bill now focuses and aims this effort at the right people,” said Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper. “This bill keeps our law enforcement from being caught in the crossfire.”

But Bouchard said the amendment destroyed the original intent of the bill by forcing the state to go to court over disputes.

“The bottom line is this guts it,” he said of the amendment. “This bill was simple. There’s no enforcement in this.”

Bouchard also criticized his fellow Republicans for bringing the amendment.

“In other states, it was members of the other party bringing this stuff,” he said. “It wasn’t members of my own caucus.”

But Nethercott said the way the bill was written, supporters were asking legislators to back an unconstitutional measure.

“The eye is not on the prize of preserving our Second Amendment rights, rather, it’s been distracted to devolving in on each other,” she said. “That is not acceptable. I did take an oath in this chamber to only advance constitutional legislation. Being pushed to question my oath regarding the constitutionality of legislation before this body is a request that goes too far.”

The bill now heads to the House for review by representatives.

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Bestiality Bill Passes Wyoming Senate Committee of the Whole

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill criminalizing the act of bestiality was approved in its first Senate reading this week, making it more likely the bill will become a law by the summer.

House Bill 46 was passed by the “Committee of the Whole” during the Senate’s floor session on Tuesday afternoon. The “Committee of the Whole” refers to a chamber’s first review of a bill after it has been approved by a committee.

The bill, which won final approval from the House earlier this week, would make bestiality a misdemeanor in the state with a maximum sentence of one year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine.

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, a co-sponsor of the bill, told her colleagues the bill was inspired by an act of bestiality that occurred last summer in Sweetwater County.

“The action did occur in our state recently, drawing the issue to attention and needing to codify this law and make sure there are consequences to that in this state,” she said.

Wyoming is only one of four states that does not have a bestiality law on its books.

Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, questioned whether or not the bill would criminalize artificial insemination and other husbandry acts, but Nethercott noted there was an exception to those situations in the bill.

Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, wondered if it would be better to make bestiality a felony in the state, rather than a misdemeanor.

“These cases are really unpleasant to do, especially just for a misdemeanor,” he said.

Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, agreed with Perkins, saying that in many bestiality cases, someone is being forced into the act. He suggested amending the bill on second reading and looking into the situations that precede the bestiality.

“I would say we definitely need to pass this bill,” Kost said.

This incident that spurred the bill occurred last summer when a man in Sweetwater County was found to have trespassed onto private property to engage in sexual activity with horses.

“While shocking, this is actually a very difficult case,” Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Jason Mower said at the time of the crime. “Wyoming is only one of a handful of states without a bestiality statute on the books.”

Mower also explained that for an animal cruelty charge to hold up in court, it would have to be proven that the man actually injured the horses.

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House Kills Sales Tax Boost To Help Local Governments

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Wyoming State Capitol

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would have added 1 cent to the statewide sales tax to benefit local governments was killed in the House on Tuesday as representatives agreed it would hurt the ability of towns and counties to tax themselves.

The House voted 10-50 against House Bill 174, agreeing with arguments it would hamper the ability of residents of towns and counties to vote to impose an optional sales tax on themselves to pay for special projects in their communities.

“We pride ourselves on telling our citizens ‘You get to choose what this tax pays for,’” said Rep. Christopher Knapp, R-Gillette. “This takes that away and makes it mandatory.”

Wyoming tax laws impose a statewide 4% sales tax and allow local governments to impose up to another 3%.

House Revenue Committee Chair Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, said HB174 would have increased the statewide tax to 5% and reduced the local taxes to 2%. The extra statewide 1%, estimated to raise up to $181 million a year, would have been distributed to towns and counties, easing financial strains created with the declines in the state’s mineral industries.

Harshman said the bill would not have imposed a new tax on residents, just changed how the tax is charged.

“This bill does not increase one tax,” he said. “It does not raise one penny in tax.”

But Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, argued that voters would be hesitant to approve local sales tax increases given the higher statewide sales tax.

“This decreases options for the people,” he said during the bill’s third reading in the House. “It makes that first percent mandatory. This decreases people’s voices.”

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Bill Designating “Hank Coe Highway” Advances

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Hank Coe was known throughout Wyoming for his dedication to his city, his friends, his position as a state senator — and now his memory is being honored in the Wyoming Legislature.

A bill that would name a portion of Highway 120 – both north and south of Coe’s hometown of Cody — the “Hank Coe Leadership Highway” is this week nearing the end of its journey through the Legislature.

Henry Huttleston Rogers “Hank” Coe passed away just two months ago at the age of 74 after battling pancreatic cancer — less than a year after his retirement from public office. 

He served in the Wyoming Legislature for 32 years in a multitude of roles, including majority floor leader, Senate vice president and Semate President, and chaired a number of committees.

Among his many achievements, Coe played an instrumental role in creating the Hathaway Scholarship, a merit-based scholarship which benefits Wyoming students who attend state colleges and the University of Wyoming. 

So to designate a portion of a major highway that runs through his hometown as a “leadership highway” seems appropriate, according to Sandy Newsome, a fellow Cody resident who currently serves in the Wyoming House of Representatives.

“You know, he was a county commissioner for years and years and served in the state house for 32 years — and just always giving to his community,” Newsome recalled. “Whether it was as a firefighter or commissioner, or with the Coe Medical Foundation, or the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, he was always giving of his time and expertise.”

Newsome said her connection with Coe began back in the 1980s when Coe served as a volunteer firefighter and Sandy’s husband was on the Park County Search and Rescue squad. 

Coe’s concern for people was genuine, she said.

“I used to take my mother-in-law on Tuesdays to do her little errands around town, and it often included a stop at Hank’s office, because he was her stockbroker” she said. “She had lost her hearing a little bit and he was so patient, and so kind. “Given his stature in the community, he was just as gracious as can be.“

House Bill 135 designating the highway has been approved by the House and was approved Tuesday in its first reading by the Senate. If the Senate approves the bill in two more readings, it will go to the desk of Gov. Mark Gordon for his signature.

If it passes, the “Hank Coe Leadership Highway” will join other memorial roadways such as the “Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Highway” on Interstate 25; the “Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Pathway” on Highway 28 in Fremont County; the “Medal of Honor Highway” on Highway 20 between Wyoming’s borders with Montana and Nebraska, and the “Wild Horse Highway” east of Cody on Highway 14/16/20.

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Cody Legislator: Disability-Related Abortions Step Toward Eugenics

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Wyoming measles-free, but officials urge preventive action

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A bill that would ban abortions conducted for “discriminatory” reasons is headed for its final review in the Wyoming House of Representatives.

House Bill 161, sponsored by Rep. John Romero-Martinez, R-Cheyenne, would ban abortions performed because the unborn child diagnosed with a disability or for the reasons of race, sex, color, national origin or ancestry.

In the bill, disabilities is defined as any disease, defect or disorder that is genetically inherited, including physical, mental and intellectual disabilities, physical disfigurement, scoliosis, dwarfism, down syndrome, albinism, amelia, meromelia or a physical or mental disease.

The bill passed through its second reading in the House on Tuesday, meaning it is likely to be up for a third reading later this week.

Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, on Tuesday offered an amendment that would require the state to reimburse pregnant women who were forced into carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term.

The program Connolly suggested in her amendment would cover all medical costs associated with the pregnancy, birth and additional educations and therapies related to a child being born with disabilities.

Her amendment, which would also require genetic testing for pregnant women, was defeated as the bill itself was approved in its second reading.

“I am confused about this bill and how it could honestly be implemented,” Connolly said during the House floor debate. “What this amendment does, it clarifies that we as a state…do not want the results of genetic testing to be used for abortion, but if a woman is obligated to carry a pregnancy to term, that we will take care of that child. That is our obligation.”

Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, a co-sponsor of the bill, spoke in opposition to the amendment, saying it didn’t align with the bill’s intention.

“The reality is that sex-selection abortions are occurring in the United States,” she said. “Recent studies have showed that more than 90% of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. Clearly, this is the chilling side to eugenics and it must be confronted there.”

Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, also spoke in opposition of the amendment.

“We’re not mandating that the woman has to take care of the child for the rest of its life, if she feels unable to care for the child after it is born,” she said. “We do have an existing program [like this that] Medicaid pays for.”

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School Board Bill Gets Amended to Require Political Affiliation Be Listed on Ballots

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

An amended bill that would, in effect, make school board races partisan passed is first full review in the Wyoming State Senate on Monday.

Senate File 138, in its original form, would have given school board candidates the option of listing their political party.

But an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) making party affiliation required was passed by a 14-13 vote.

Gierau said he wasn’t sure if he supported the original legislation but offered the amendment to “improve it.”

“If it’s a good idea to list party affiliation for school board, then why not just do it?” Geirau said. “I don’t understand this part about making it optional.” 

Sen. Affie Ellis, (R-Cheyenne), sponsor of the legislation, said she considered making the listing of party affiliation mandatory but opted not to for policy and practical reasons. 

Ellis said she wanted to respect the rights of individuals who don’t consider themselves to be partisan. She also expressed concern that making the listing of party affiliation could ultimately doom the bill.

Regardless, Ellis said her bill was necessary for transparency as many candidates don’t tell voters who they are and what they stand for.

“We are doing a disservice to the public by not providing more information about candidates,” Ellis said. “This bill, at its most basic level, allows the voter more information but it’s left to the school board candidate’s discretion.”

Ellis said in her district, there were a number of candidates who didn’t report spending anything on campaigning or doing any fundraising.

“While that may seem charming, to me it seems a little alarming,” she said explaining that this meant candidates were not being transparent.

“Mailers were not being sent out explaining priorities or positions or philosophies on governance,” she said. 

Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) spoke against the bill and the amendment, stating that the country has become too partisan as it is and making school board races partisan wouldn’t be productive.

“When I look around the country and the state of national affairs, the last thing I hear is ‘Boy, there’s just not enough partisanship,’” Rothfuss said.

The senator said he doesn’t know the party affiliation of the school board candidates he voted for in Albany County and he was “happy” about that.

“I don’t want the basis of my kids’ education to be partisan. I don’t want that to be the driving force,” he said.

“Let’s try to de-polarize and de-politicize the process instead of going the other direction,” he said.

The bill, in its amended form, passed by a voice vote and next goes to second reading.

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