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House GOP Calls Out Dem Disarray, Question Shapiro Over Ongoing Vereb Scandal

After a contentious, late-night session on Wednesday dominated by Democratic political maneuvering, House Republicans held a press conference Thursday to denounce the political disarray.

“You don’t come to the floor as the majority leader and only get 27 votes for a bill,” said Minority Leader Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster). “You don’t come to the floor simply to fail. And yet that is what we watched.”

Cutler went down a laundry list of complaints against Democrats, accusing them of shutting down debate four times, refusing to answer questions on bills almost two dozen times, and tabling bills en masse more than 30 times during the current session. “You’ve got 140 Republican amendments and counting that have been ruled out of order. The floor is being run in a way to shut off debate, to silence voices, offering midnight amendments, and it’s lacking transparency.”

“The Democrats own this chaos,” Cutler added before pivoting to the state’s budget impasse. “I was promised [by Democratic leadership] that we would have the budget and all the implementing bills…It is 97 days later, and we are still waiting. This is a failure of leadership… It’s a failure to sit down and discuss issues…with the other chamber and the governor.”

Speaker Joanna McClinton and Democratic Leader Matthew Bradford were castigated for refusing the deal reached between Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and the Republican-controlled Senate on school vouchers. “They may be able to say they (sent a) series of bills to the other chamber,” Cutler said. “The majority has yet to learn the majority about passing bills…and governing, which is working with all parties involved.”

Shapiro ended up vetoing the voucher program but has said that he wants it to eventually become law.

House Republicans see the bills passed this week along party lines as the Democrats not being interested in solving problems or being productive.

The House had a late night Wednesday. The Appropriations Committee worked past midnight on election code and budget bills. That included adding university funding as an amendment, slipping past the typical two-thirds majority needed for higher education funding legislation. It is unknown if the Senate or the governor will go along with the spending and election pacts.

That, Cutler swore, wouldn’t have happened if he had been running the chamber. “I know that our members wish that I was running the calendar again because we didn’t go to the floor to fail. And I’m beginning to think some [Democrats] wish I was the majority leader again,” he quipped.

State Rep. Tim O’Neal (R-Washington) later suggested Shapiro’s office used taxpayer money to pay off a woman who accused a now-former aide of sexual harassment.

“We learned of the same issue out of Gov. Shapiro’s own administration,” said O’Neal on Thursday. “With another sexual assault cover-up from one of his cabinet officials where taxpayer dollars were used to pay off the victim.”

O’Neal did not offer any evidence to confirm the allegation.

A House GOP staffer cited a Broad + Liberty article on Mike Vereb’s resignation last month. That piece only said that it was “not yet known if the claim has resulted in any kind of settlement.”

Vereb, who has a long political relationship with Shapiro, had been the governor’s secretary of legislative affairs. He was accused by a female former deputy secretary of unwanted sexual conversations earlier this year. The complaint suggests Vereb made statements about what the woman wore and told her to wear sexier clothing.

Shapiro, who may have eyes on the White House, won’t answer questions on what and when he knew about the Vereb accusations, and if the resignation was voluntary or forced.

“I can’t comment on any specifics, and that’s really designed to protect all parties involved in any matter,” he told reporters Thursday afternoon.

The governor then brushed the questions aside to talk about women in leadership. “Our administration is led by two women, strong women…and we work every day to make sure that we have a healthy, safe, professional work environment for all of our employees.”

House Republicans want the Democratic governor to be more open about whether a payoff happened. “What have we heard from the governor on that?” asked O’Neal rhetorically. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Those worries don’t seem to be bothering Senate Democrats.

“As a female state senator, we were able to sit and meet with Gov. Shapiro and his team,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Bethlehem Township) at the same event as Shapiro. “We came out of that very confident that he is handling that…He has two powerful women who know what they’re doing when it comes to personnel issues.

Senate Republicans still want to know more.

“The people of Pennsylvania trust us to work on their behalf as public officials with integrity, respect, and with the best interest of the people we serve at the top of our mind,” said Sen. Tracy Pennycuick (R-Montgomery). “When this trust is betrayed, the people deserve answers.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) wants to know how Vereb’s resignation will affect other issues.

“Despite this being a personnel matter, the governor’s office has offered official comments and conflicting information on the issue. This not only raises concerns related to their workplace practices but also whether this matter has influenced our current unfinished budget situation and how taxpayer funds are supporting this issue,” said Ward.

Shapiro dismissed Ward’s criticism as not worthy of response.

“First off, I’d just say consider the source when it comes to the president pro tem,” the governor said. “We have an independent, robust process that is one where any employee should feel comfortable coming forward.”

Shapiro’s office did not answer an email on whether a settlement was offered or reached with Vereb’s accuser. The accuser’s attorney, Chuck Pascal, did not return a call asking a similar question.

Gov. Shapiro Ditches Scholarship Plan for Children in Failing Schools

Gov. Josh Shapiro plans to allow the House to pass a $45.5 million budget without the school choice scholarship program that the Senate approved through negotiations with him.

The budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year was due June 30. But with the Democratic-controlled House refusing to go along with the $100 million earmarked for the PASS scholarships (formerly called Lifeline) for children in failing public schools, Shapiro is now playing ball with the House and leaving the senators to fume.

Previously, Shapiro campaigned on the promise of scholarships for students in failing public schools but teachers’ unions and many of his fellow Democrats opposed the plan. A Commonwealth Foundation poll found 77 percent of Pennsylvanians agreed that the state “has arbitrary school district boundaries that traditionally force underprivileged students into underperforming schools. All kids should have access to the best public schools, regardless of location.”

Shapiro released a statement Wednesday afternoon, saying in part, “Knowing that the two chambers will not reach consensus at this time to enact PASS, and unwilling to hold up our entire budget process over this issue, I will line-item veto the total $100 million appropriation, and it will not be part of this budget bill.

“While I am disappointed the two parties could not come together, (House) Leader (Matthew) Bradford has given me his word — and he has written a letter outlining directly to (Senate) Leader (Joe) Pittman — that he will carefully examine and consider additional education options including PASS, Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), and Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) as we work to address our public education needs in light of the Commonwealth Court’s recent education ruling,” Shapiro said.

The last three budget cycles have seen major increases in education funding, including $567 million for basic education; $100 million level up; $100 K-12 mental health; $125 million school safety/facilities; $50 million special education; $100 Million Lifeline/PASS Scholarships; and free lunches.

Advocates for school choice unloaded on Shapiro over his reversal.

“Governor Josh Shapiro said he supported private school choice and even put it in his education platform before the election. He just sent out a statement indicating he will line-item veto the school choice program in the budget,” said Corey DeAngelis, executive director of the Educational Freedom Institute.

“He played the parents of Pennsylvania.”

House Republican Appropriations Chairman Seth Grove (R-York) said his committee is counting the days, hours, minutes, and seconds Pennsylvania has no budget.

“I think it’s important for Pennsylvanians to know the length of time House Democrats have held the budget hostage over Lifeline Scholarships,” Grove said. “We’re talking about 0.2 percent of the budget, just $100 million to help kids in failing schools. This is what House Democrats have chosen to grind the entire process to a halt over.”

Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia/Delaware) said he is “very disappointed.”

“Children who are in these schools need them to prepare them for life, whether that’s public school, charter schools or parochial schools. And we need to do everything we can do to help them.”

Commonwealth Partners President and CEO Matt Brouillette released the following statement this afternoon after Gov. Josh Shapiro said he would veto PASS Scholarships (formerly Lifeline Scholarships).

“Today, Gov. Josh Shapiro not only reneged on his word to the people of Pennsylvania. But worse, at the first sign of opposition he gave up the fight to rescue kids trapped in failing schools.

“He claims he wins big fights, but in the first big fight of his administration—with kids’ futures on the line—he left the court without even taking one shot. Today, Gov. Shapiro shows who really runs this state, and it’s not him.”

Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Lawrence Tabas said, “By vetoing the Lifeline Scholarship Program, not only is Josh Shapiro crushing hope of a better education and a better life for disadvantaged children, but he is shamelessly catering to the teachers unions, which benefit from trapping these children in bad schools. There is no acceptable reason to deny any child, of any color, background, or Zip code the potential that comes with access to a better education.”

Charlie Gerow, a Republican political consultant with Quantum Communications, said about Shapiro’s bypassing the Senate, “Shapiro plays political games. Big shocker. Sadly, this one is at the expense of our kids.”

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Shapiro Embraces School Vouchers, Enrages Teachers Unions

As the state budget season nears its June 30 deadline, Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) said he is ready to support a school voucher program for Pennsylvania students.

“I believe every child of God deserves a shot here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and one of the best ways we can guarantee their success is making sure every child has a quality education,” Shapiro told Fox News’ Dana Perino when asked about vouchers. “I’ve been very clear that I’m open to that concept that you described a moment ago. But I’ve also made crystal clear that I won’t take a dollar out of our public schools in order to achieve that.”

The backlash was immediate.

PSEA president Bill Askey said in a statement Lifeline Scholarships are “yet another ideological push to weaken public schools and privatize the public education system. It would take money from school districts with the most student needs and give it to private and religious schools without any real accountability for how the money is spent. This is another irresponsible tuition voucher proposal that will end up hurting Pennsylvania’s students, not helping them.”

The Lifeline Scholarship program would allow parents in Pennsylvania’s worst-performing school districts to take part of the money that would have gone to their child’s public education and use it for alternative education, such as private or parochial school.

SB795 would offer $5,000 for elementary tuition and expenses and $10,000 for high school. Average per-pupil spending is more than $19,000, and the remainder of the money would stay with the district. As a result, supporters say, the district would have more resources for fewer students while giving concerned parents more options.

For Ana Cintron’s son, Nelson Garcia, a rising junior with a 4.0 GPA at Liguori Academy in Kensington, scholarships have been a lifesaver.

“The public school in my neighborhood was no option for me,” she told DVJournal. “Public school is not an option for him. It’s a rough neighborhood.”

Public schools have larger classes, and the teachers aren’t able to “follow through” with students, making it “harder for students to learn.”

State scholarship funding would help her son and many others.

“Times are just really uncertain. Everything’s going up. Nothing goes down,” said Cintron. “I’m a full-time working parent, but it’s still hard with everything, utilities and food. At times you have to choose where to put your money first.”

“I just feel all kids and their families should have the opportunity to receive these funds,” said Cintron. “It is amazing. There are a lot of smart kids, but due to financial circumstances, a lot of times, that gets in the way of some of them achieving higher goals. And the parent should not have to worry about that.”

“My son has been blessed,” said Cintron. Of course, there’s a lot of hard work that he has done. But I don’t think kids should be held back because of (lack of funds).”

Guy Ciarrocchi, a fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank, has been working on the issue and hopes funding for the scholarships will be part of the state budget since Shapiro expressed his support and has “gotten national press” on the topic.

“Lifeline in one form or another passed the House, vouchers passed the Senate,” he said. “We’ve had governors who were supportive before, but something has happened to block it. (But) I’m optimistic.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward has said Lifeline Scholarships are her number one issue. Majority Leader Sen. Joe Pittman “remains committed to education empowerment through parental involvement in the education of their children,” said a spokesperson. An exact amount for the scholarship funds has not been hammered out.

“I think they have a chance to do something historic, and they know it,” said Ciarrocchi. He said the scholarship program would help kids in failing schools, in the bottom 15 percent of the state. And it would be another win for Shapiro, who scored on the quick reopening of I-95.

“If you’re Josh Shapiro and you’ve been in office for six, seven months, the big takeaway for most of the state is: ‘He seems to get things done.’ That’s worth $1 billion [in public relations], right?”

On Monday, the state Senate confirmed Shapiro’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Khalid Mumin. Mumin, former Lower Merion superintendent, told the committee he supports Lifeline Scholarships.

Many Democrats and teachers’ unions oppose the scholarships. In a joint letter to lawmakers, a group of unions representing teachers and other government workers announced their opposition to the voucher program.

“This tuition voucher exercise, timed conveniently in the final days of FY 2023-24 budget deliberations, is keeping policymakers from addressing actual problems like our unconstitutional public school funding system and the school staff shortage crisis. It is irresponsible to vote for any tuition voucher program or include a tuition voucher program in any state budget agreement.”


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GOP Rep. Chris Quinn Seeks Re-Election In More Dem-Friendly District

Incumbent state Rep. Chris Quinn (R) faces a tougher race this year after redistricting cut out a swath of the 168th District and made it bluer, a win for Democrats in the legislature.

Thornbury, Upper Providence, Marple, Media, and Chester Heights were eliminated from the lawmaker’s district, which now includes Radnor, Newtown, Edgmont, and parts of Middletown Township. Quinn, a former Middletown councilman, is seeking his fourth term.

Quinn told DVJ in a recent interview that former constituents were outraged when they learned he will no longer be their representative.

“How can we fight this?” they asked Quinn said. “What can we do? It made me feel good. It’s a tougher district for me, but I believe the voters if they’re paying attention, they know I’ve done a lot.”

The Republican lawmaker’s opponents in this year’s race are Radnor Township’s 4th Ward Commissioner Lisa Borowski (D) and little-known Libertarian candidate Jimmy Mitchell.

Borowski declined to respond to DVJ’s multiple requests for an interview. Her campaign website is here.

Regardless of the new lines, inflation remains a huge issue among Quinn’s constituents.

“I think, truthfully, when your gas prices have gone up significantly and you’re looking at empty shelves, those are big issues,” Quinn said.

Quinn, who worked in global electronics manufacturing before starting his own insurance agency in 2002, touts himself as an “old-style compassionate conservative” who has authored legislation since first being elected in 2016.

He supports a recent proposal to eliminate Pennsylvania’s closed primary elections that would open up voting for 1.3 million voters who are not registered with either of the main two parties.

The Keystone State is one of nine states with completely closed primaries, which Quinn called “fundamentally undemocratic.”

Quinn also touted the signing of Deana’s Law, which cracks down on the state’s worst drunken-driving offenders.

It was named in honor of Deana Eckman, who was killed in a head-on crash with a repeat DUI offender in February 2019. The law requires consecutive sentences for those convicted of third and subsequent DUIs.

“[The driver] should have been in jail, but because of a broken system, he was out on the road,” Quinn said.

Quinn believes those bills are just a start for him. If re-elected, he said he would be in a prime position, on all the right committees – appropriations, commerce, consumer affairs and insurance – to get even more bills through the legislature.

“I have always tried to rise above partisan politics,” he said. “It’s our job to figure out how to work in the middle. If you look at me as an individual, I’ve been a problem-solver. It’s really been about, ‘How do I get legislation done?’ I’ve figured out how to work across the aisle, how to work with the right and with the left and move bills.”

On issues important to Republicans, like an assault-weapon ban, Quinn is more moderate and supports universal background checks for all firearm purchases.

The father of three daughters said the constant threat of deadly school shootings has exacerbated mental health issues for students who were already traumatized by losing out on time with peers during the COVID-19 shutdowns.

“I don’t understand why someone needs to have an assault rifle,” Quinn said about the preferred weapon of choice for many school shooters while also cautioning that Democrats “want to say that any gun that’s black is bad and evil.”

When it comes to crime, Quinn is on the fence about the attempted impeachment of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who was elected to a second term in 2021.

The lawmaker did not initially support the impeachment effort but was struck by Krasner’s refusal to comply with a subpoena issued by a state legislative committee seeking his ouster.

He claimed the district attorney’s policies have found support among jailbirds who allegedly tattooed Krasner’s name on their arms.

“When I look at Larry Krasner, I think he’s doing a horrific job. I think he’s doing a huge disservice to the residents of Philadelphia,” Quinn said. “The fact that he wants to disobey the law of the land, I went from, ‘Guys, do we really want to do this?’ to ‘Is there something there?’ Larry Krasner has a revolving door. I’m not a Larry Krasner fan.”


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In Wake of Dobbs Decision, Abortion Politics Heats Up in Harrisburg

Activists on both sides of the abortion issue are fighting in Harrisburg over the legal future of the controversial procedure, and they’re both  leveling accusations of “extremism” to make their case.

Supporters of legal abortion point to a proposed amendment to the state constitution from abortion opponents, “providing that there is no right to abortion or funding for an abortion.” The resolution, condemned as “extreme” by its opponents, passed the GOP-controlled legislature last week.

In order for it to take effect, it must pass again in the next legislative session, and then voters must approve it in a referendum, possibly in 2023.

Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has jumped into the fray, issuing an executive order that the state would refuse to honor any warrant from another state for a person charged with a criminal violation involving reproduction. The order also protects healthcare professionals. Wolf stated in a press release he has vetoed three abortion-related bills.

Pro-life organizations called Wolf’s actions “extreme.”

“With his vetoes on these pro-life bills, Gov. Wolf brags about his support of late-term abortion, as well as his support for ripping babies apart limb by limb, aborting babies that have Down syndrome, and putting women with ectopic pregnancies at more risk,” said Dan Bartkowiak, director of communications for Pennsylvania Family Institute. “This is an appalling display of extreme pro-abortion politics that are out of touch with Pennsylvania families. Sadly, this has come to be expected from a governor that is a former volunteer for Planned Parenthood and has received significant campaign contributions from the abortion industry.”

Marlene Downing, deputy director for Pennsylvania for the Susan B. Anthony List, said, “The majority of Pennsylvanians who are pro-abortion do not want the restrictions already in place to go away.” These include the 24-week limit and preventing minors from undergoing the procedure without parental consent.

“Hopefully, the constitutional amendment will be passed,” she said. The amendment would not ban abortion in Pennsylvania, but it would help prevent current limits on abortion from being removed by a future legislature, she said.

Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates Executive Director Signe Espinoza took the opposite position. She said in a statement the legislature has “taken a significant step toward forcing their radical anti-abortion agenda into the Pennsylvania Constitution.” She complained the process was rushed and the vote taken “under the cover of darkness.”

“Anti-abortion legislators have advanced a bill that will take rights out of our constitution. The bill can pass again in January, be on the 2023 primary ballot, and lead to abortion bans by this time next summer.

“This is the most expedited timeline possible, and we know that these extremists have been planning for this since they stacked the United States Supreme Court with the sole goal of overturning Roe v Wade. This process was not transparent, and that was intentional by a far-right majority dead-set on advancing a fringe ideology,” Espinoza said.

The group plans to take “accountability actions” with legislative leaders and also unveil digital billboards, a spokeswoman said.

Downing said the Susan B. Anthony List has been going door-to-door throughout the state, passing out pro-life literature. Some 225,000 households had been reached by early July, she said. Their volunteers also speak with people about their pro-life message when someone is at home.

The literature attacks Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Josh Shapiro as “too extreme on abortion.”

“Fetterman opposes all limits on abortion and even defends late-term abortion and taxpayer-funded abortion and denying babies who survive abortion life-saving medical care,” the brochure said.

“Shapiro is a pro-abortion activist who opposes all limits on abortion,” it continued. “Shapiro supports abortion on demand up to the moment of birth, all at taxpayer expense.”

Ironically, both the Fetterman and Shapiro campaigns are running attack ads on television against Dr. Mehmet Oz and Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Republicans running for senator and governor, that call them “extreme” for their pro-life positions.

“We are just educating people about candidates who are extreme on abortion,” said Downing, who is also on the board of the Pro-Life Union Pennsylvania. “Our goal is to talk to Pennsylvanians.” Most residents are “not against abortion or for abortion. They like restrictions on it, that middle ground…We’re talking to all the voters we can.”


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Frustrations Flare During Hearing on PA Fireworks Law

For many Pennsylvania lawmakers, more access to fireworks is nothing to celebrate.

During a legislative hearing Wednesday on the possibility of repealing or amending Act 43, the 2017 measure that allowed Pennsylvania residents to purchase consumer-grade fireworks, state Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) had a dire warning.

When people in his North Philadelphia district hear fireworks explode they might mistake it for gunfire and begin shooting back, and the situation “turns into gunplay,” he said.

Before the new law passed, only ground-based fireworks, like sparklers, were permitted to be sold to residents, although people from neighboring states could buy aerial fireworks from shops in Pennsylvania.

State Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver, Butler, Lawrence), chair of the Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee and Rep. Dan Moul (R-Gettysburg), who chairs the same committee in the House, held the joint hearing. However, Vogel said no legislative action will be taken on the fireworks law until next year.

Legislators are considering whether to increase the fines to $1,000 for a first offense, $2,500 for a second offense, and $5,000 for a third offense for disregarding the law and also making violations a misdemeanor.

Because the law requires fireworks not to be set off within 150 feet of an occupied building there is nowhere that is legal for them to be used in densely populated Philadelphia, except for a park, Street said.

Calls about fireworks often come in as gunfire reports, said Scott Bohn, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. It is also hard to track how many complaints about fireworks occur since those can be categorized as other things, such as noise ordinance violations. When calls come in, law enforcement officials are not necessarily going to prioritize fireworks when more serious crimes are happening at the same time, Bohn said.

Also, once police respond to the scene the person who set off the fireworks is usually gone.

State Police Sgt. Jerry Harper, supervisor of the fire marshal unit, said fireworks have been used as weapons against police during some protests, so they are also a danger to first responders.

Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jerry Delaney, president of the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association, said the widespread use of fireworks poses a “significant public safety risk.”

“Some communities are like a war zone on July 4,” he said. And when fireworks are launched into the air, no one knows where they might land, including on rooftops and into leaf-filled gutters, he said.

This past July 4, an 8-year-old boy in West York died from injuries from discarded fireworks, and they are believed to be the cause of a Lower Merion house fire that claimed the life of volunteer firefighter Sean DeMuynck. Also, in Wilkes-Barre a family was left homeless when fireworks set their house on fire, Delaney said.

Representatives of the associations representing townships and boroughs said that dealing with fireworks is “an unfunded mandate.” However, there seemed to be general agreement that local municipal officials would like to be able to set their own rules instead of adhering to overly broad state law.

State Sen. Judith Schwank (D-Berks), minority chair, said the fireworks law costs Reading $28,000 in overtime. When fireworks are confiscated there is also a cost to dispose of them.

Daniel Peart, director of government affairs for Phantom Fireworks, said his company makes sure retailers tell customers the rules and directions for fireworks use. There are signs on every aisle and pamphlets are given out with purchases.

He suggested local municipalities should also have a role in educating their residents about what is legal.

Asked about limiting fireworks to 500 feet of an occupied structure, rather than the current 150 feet, Peart said, “You’re essentially banning fireworks.”

“We want to continue to expand and operate legally,” Peart said. Questioned about how much sales have increased since the law was changed, Peart would not give a direct answer but did admit there was “a notable increase in business.”

Asked to comment, Berwyn Fire Company Chief Eamon Brazunas agreed education is the key to preventing fireworks tragedies and added he would like to see warnings on television. For example, people do not realize how hot fireworks can get and that they cannot be immediately discarded in the regular trash. They don’t realize they should not be setting fireworks off on dry and windy days, when the risk of brushfires is high.

“We’ve had a couple of fire calls (from fireworks) locally,” Brazunas said. People don’t realize there is a rule to stay 150 feet from structures, which can be any building, even a shed, he said.

Also, there is the noise factor, which is a problem in the denser areas like Radnor and Easttown Township, compared to more rural parts of Chester County.

People complain that the police aren’t doing enough but “what do you want them to do, crawl under fences?” he asked. And now, neighbors complain on social media instead of just talking to each other about the fireworks noise issue, he said.

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