November 11, 2014

The Beef With Kemper Arena

Kansas City heavy hitter Tony Botello of Tony’s Kansas City is not exactly a bashful guy. In a recent blog post on his website, he strongly criticized Show-Me for not weighing in on recent events involving the future of Kemper Arena, KC’s 1970s-era multipurpose sports facility. I’m happy to step on the scale.

For those unfamiliar with the Kemper situation, the shortest of the short stories is one of a contract dispute. The American Royal—a century-old nonprofit and scholarship-granting organization focused on agriculture—has a lease with Kansas City to use Kemper but doesn’t think the city has maintained the facility at the level the city promised.

Why the city would neglect Kemper is straightforward enough; the arena has operated in the red for years now, and with the Sprint Center now online downtown, the public face of the city for many concerts and sporting events is no longer in the Bottoms, but on the Bluff. Rather than continue to operate in what it says is a poorly maintained facility, the Royal wants the arena bulldozed and replaced with a new facility that more closely accommodates the Royal’s mission and substantively fulfills the requirements of their lease, which extends amazingly until 2045.

In light of the maintenance requirements and duration of the lease, how much does the Royal say the city is liable for?

Based on the numbers that the American Royal received and validated with the city, [American Royal attorney Chase] Simmons said, the city has $150 million worth of obligations to the organization, on top of the $2.5 million it’s losing on average each year.

In other words, this was a dumb lease by the city for an older facility, whose subsidies we have criticized before. Our longstanding objections to city-ownership of sports stadiums still stands, but it’s accentuated here by what has happened in Kansas City with Kemper Arena. The city has a money pit on its hands and, on top of that, appears to have done a poor job of honoring its remaining lease obligations.

But that doesn’t make the American Royal a victim or a hero in all of this. (Disclosure: I am a Governor with the American Royal.) When the city balked at the Royal’s plan to bulldoze the arena, another group proposed turning Kemper into a multipurpose community sports facility, leveraging . . . historic preservation tax credits. Just two years ago I criticized not only Missouri’s practice of throwing historic preservation incentives around, but I was specifically critical of throwing them at Kemper Arena. The “Foutch Plan” (as it was called) was an alternative, and as a matter of policy it wasn’t “better,” but it did have the positive effect of forcing the Royal to try to make its proposal more attractive.

When it appeared the city may accept the Foutch Plan over the Royal’s, the Royal did something really, really sad—it floated the possibility that it would move out of Kansas City entirely, a nuclear option presumably intended to shock the city back to the Royal’s side. In my view, an American Royal outside the West Bottoms is not the American Royal, and I think most civic leaders would agree with that view. In any case, such a move by the Royal would almost certainly rely on subsidies provided by someone else in the region, probably in Kansas, which would  run afoul of Show-Me’s longstanding opposition to border war incentives.

Ultimately the idea of moving didn’t tip the scale to the Royal, but litigation threatened by the organization against Foutch did, and Foutch dropped its proposal. That threat, while effective in pushing out the competing plan, exacerbated the PR nightmare that got rolling after the Royal’s leadership threatened it could move. But that’s where things stand today: The Royal’s plan appears on track to prevail, and Kemper appears on track to be bulldozed.

The most basic reaction we would offer here is that Kansas City shouldn’t have been in the arena business anyway. Moreover, the overly generous terms of the lease goes to show that trusting government to act as a fiduciary for taxpayers in financial matters is hardly ever prudent. We rejected historic preservation tax credits to save Kemper and also reject border war incentives that would subsidize the Royal so that it could possibly move out of Kansas City.

However, we support contract rights, and to the extent that an agreement was made between the Royal and the city, the terms of that agreement have to be substantively performed. Taxpayers deserved a better deal than the one the city made, but they got a lot of bull instead. And like the city’s predicament with the money-hemorrhaging Power & Light District, what taxpayers deserve does not change what taxpayers are on the hook for. Yes, the Royal may eventually “win” the question of what happens to the Kemper Arena property, but that win will have come at a price—for the organization, and for the city.

There has to be a fundamental shift in the political and policy culture of Kansas City if we are to avoid debacles like this in the future, and that means fighting bad ideas before they are implemented and educating taxpayers about better development strategies that will make them, their families, and their communities better off by empowering them, not the government.

November 7, 2014

Gone Girl, Gone Jobs

Gone Girl brought a frenzy of excitement to the Cape Girardeau area and the state of Missouri, but was the $2.36 million tax credit worth the 15 minutes of fame? Stating that “the production hired 116 Missourians, including more than 20 off-duty law enforcement officials,” proponents of the film tax-credit program tout its success in creating jobs for Missourians.

These figures, however, fail to acknowledge that the jobs are temporary and part-time. Even more troubling, most of the higher-paying jobs used in the production of Gone Girl went to nonresidents who were brought in from LA. Now that the production of the film has finished, these so-called “created” jobs are gone.

Despite the reality of failed promises of job creation, many legislators and supporters are calling for the reinstatement of the film tax credit (which expired in November 2013) to entice movie producers to film in Missouri. The tax credit, which reduces the production companies’ tax liability, is intended to generate substantial economic activity and jobs as a result of the productions.

There is little evidence to support the notion that these tax credits are successful. A 2010 study by the Tax Foundation, however, shows that film tax credits don’t create long-term jobs, nor do they create sustainable economic growth for the state.

Most film production jobs are filled by out-of-state residents specializing in particular areas of audio or visual production. Additionally, producing a film is a relatively short-term venture in comparison to other investment projects. Since most of these positions are not permanent, “workers are left unemployed” after the production ends unless a steady stream of films is present.

The ugly truth of film tax credits is that they bring an industry into a state that doesn’t have the proper infrastructure to support said industry, and thus they do not produce long-term, well-paying jobs. Missourians deserve more than a brief moment on the silver screen. Instead, Missouri policymakers need to invest in ventures that will bring long-term economic growth to the state.

November 6, 2014

Proposed Property Tax Increase Fails in Columbia

Since the proposed property tax increase failed in Columbia, it seems the city is heading for a disaster of biblical proportions. I mean Old Testament, real wrath of God type stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes . . . the dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria! Okay, not really. In fact, if you read my commentary on the ballot measure, you’d know that crime, especially violent crime, and the total number of fires are actually declining in Columbia. This is a good thing.

However, what if you’re among the more than 10,000 residents who feel that Columbia needs a bit more in the way of police and fire protection? I’d say don’t despair. There are other means by which the city can increase revenues without resorting to a property tax increase.

For instance, the city could look at the fire expense reimbursement that it receives for services that it performs for the three colleges located in town. According to the Columbia budget, these reimbursements are declining and have been for the past couple of years. Columbia can renegotiate with these colleges in order to get higher reimbursements.

Columbia also could look into privatizing its water and electric utilities. The sale of these types of utilities can bring in an immediate infusion of cash to cities’ bank accounts. For example, the city of Florissant, Missouri, privatized its water utility in 2002 and received $14.5 million from the sale. More recently, the residents of Arnold approved the sale of their sewer system, which brought the city $13.2 million. Not only can the sale of the utilities themselves bring in more money to the city, but privatization can also expand the city’s property tax base, which would generate more revenue in the future.

The instances of crime and fire have declined in Columbia, yet for those who believe that public safety is underfunded, there are other ways to raise revenue besides a tax increase. Maybe it’s time they explore them.


November 5, 2014

Thoughts on Gov. Nixon’s Rams Press Conference

With the Rams poised to do a power run out of town, are public officials planning to blitz unwary taxpayers and their pocketbooks? Earlier today, Gov. Nixon huddled with the press discussing his game plan on how to keep the Rams in Saint Louis. Due to an arbitrator’s ruling, the Rams are allowed to shift to a year-to-year lease on their current stadium in 2015 since it is not “top-tier.” During the press conference, Gov. Nixon announced that he would be appointing former A-B executive Dave Peacock and Clayton attorney Bob Blitz to research options designed to keep the Rams in Saint Louis.

Details on any proposal are light, but Gov. Nixon did say that Saint Louis will remain an NFL city and that “we’re going to be partners here” in regards to upgrading the stadium. He mentioned that current funding streams will be available once payments on the original dome expire. Presently, the city, county, and state spend a combined $24 million annually on paying off the debt accrued in building the Edward Jones Dome. Gov. Nixon also was quick to point out economic benefits that having a sports team would bring.

I agree with Gov. Nixon’s desire to keep the Rams in Saint Louis. I too hope they stay, but if taxpayers are going to approve further public subsidies to the Rams, they should do so with their eyes wide open. It’s one thing if people want to pay to keep the Rams in Saint Louis because of a desire for increased civic pride or prestige. It’s another thing to claim that subsidizing construction will lead to economic growth for the area. In fact, public financing of a new stadium will not lead to increased economic growth. A study conducted by Robert A. Baade and Victor A. Matheson found that “Researchers who have gone back and looked at economic data for localities that have hosted mega-events, attracted new franchises, or built new sports facilities have almost invariably found little or no economic benefits from spectator sports.”

Again, I want the Rams to stay in Saint Louis, but I don’t want my tax dollars to be used to keep them here. New stadiums in New York and San Francisco are both 100 percent privately financed. Why should the Rams be treated any better?

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Arnold Residents Vote to Privatize Sewer System

Yesterday, the residents of Arnold voted to privatize their wastewater system by an overwhelming margin (70 percent of voters approved). While some of the larger local and state results may have captured Missourians’ attention, the result in Arnold is a step in the right direction for efficient, responsible government in that city.

Over the last couple months, we have written how privatizing the wastewater treatment facilities will be able to leverage the expertise and capital available in the private sector to provide better services and keep prices down. The sale price, $13.2 million, can be spent to retire debt and to create a rainy-day fund.

But as with all privatizations, effecting a sale should not be the end of public engagement. Arnold residents must ensure that the money from the sale is spent or saved in a wise manner. They also must ensure that city officials hold the private company, Missouri American Water, responsible for providing safe and efficient services.

Should the city be diligent in these areas, the privatization of Arnold’s sewer system has the opportunity to become an example to Missouri of how water treatment, like many public services, can be effectively provided through the private sector.

November 4, 2014

Another Push for Rail Transit in Kansas City

Recently, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders announced that the county had received a $10 million federal grant to buy just under $60 million of right-of-way from Union Pacific. The county wants that right-of- way for a $490-600 million commuter rail system. Jackson County officials are eager to move forward with the purchase, but they have not secured a funding source for the plan or resolved issues with freight rail companies over access to downtown Kansas City.

Jackson County and Union Pacific came to an understanding on purchasing the 15.5-mile Rock Island Corridor and two smaller spurs between Kansas City and Lee’s Summit for $59.9 million earlier this year. With the $10 million federal grant, the county residents will still need to fund a $50 million purchase.


But as the map above demonstrates, those purchases still leave the county well short of functioning commuter rail lines, without additional right-of-way or agreements with freight rail companies.

It is not simply a matter of purchasing track. The city has an ongoing dispute with freight companies over how commuter trains will arrive in downtown Kansas City. Regional planners are pushing for a connection with the streetcar at River Market, but Kansas City Southern Rail (KCSR) opposes this idea because it would jeopardize operations at Rock Creek Junction. KCSR suggests a connection at Union Station, but that could raise construction costs to $1.5 billion.

Using freight rail lines to get commuter rail into downtown Kansas City is no small problem, as the city is the country’s second largest freight rail hub, and rail lines downtown are already congested. Aside from providing a source of employment, having such a large freight rail hub has positive benefits for Kansas City’s manufacturing competitiveness. It would not be economically sound for the county to jeopardize freight efficiency to heavily subsidize the commutes of fewer than 4,000 residents.

While the county does not know how it will connect commuter rail to the city center, it is clear how it will pay for it: higher taxes. The county already has a plan to implement a county-wide 1 cent sales tax. But sales taxes are already very high in Kansas City. With the city still not giving up on a more expansive streetcar network, also to be funded with sales taxes, the increased tax burden may harm the city’s competitiveness. A yes vote is certainly not guaranteed.

The county does not yet have a plan for a functioning commuter rail system, and implementation depends on a tax that voters have not yet accepted. County officials should recall this before spending $50 million on right-of-way. They should also consider that Saint Louis is implementing Bus Rapid Transit, which can easily handle 4,000 commuters a day, for under $40 million. As for Kansas City residents, they should ask why city planners waste millions of dollars planning rail plan after rail plan without the approval, or even in the face of explicit disapproval, of voters.

November 3, 2014

Where Is Kansas City’s Recovery?

Whither Kansas City? According to local media outlets, the city is clearly on this rise. Millennials are moving downtown, residential developments are multiplying, and new sources of employment are entering the city. Capping it all, the Royals had a fantastic season, which was enough for the Kansas City Star to roundly praise past public subsidies for Kauffman Stadium. The story is clearly growth.

But census data paints a different picture of the metropolitan area and the city itself; a picture of falling income, rising poverty, and slow population growth. Kansas City was hit hard by the recent recession, and simply put, the city has not seen a recovery in terms of income.

Census data shows that employment is increasing in Kansas City since the recession, but total employment is still significantly below prerecession levels. That may be partially explained by lower labor force participation and fewer households. The income data is more troubling. The median household income from 2010 to 2013 is still almost $3,000 lower than it was from 2007 to 2009, not accounting for inflation. When that adjustment is made, real income has been on a continuous decline in the city since 2009.


A similar trend exists in Johnson County and the metropolitan area as a whole.

The recession caused poverty levels in Kansas City and surrounding areas to spike, and they have yet to significantly recede. Poverty levels were actually higher from 2011 to 2013 than they were from 2009 to 2011 (which includes the recession). As with income, Kansas City has yet to see anything that could be described as a healthy recovery. The following chart demonstrates recent trends:


There’s plenty of excitement and optimism in Kansas City, and that’s no bad thing. But much of the excitement seems to be for prestige projects, entertainment venues, and young people in the downtown area. If that attitude allows people to forget that for most people in Kansas City there really has not been a recovery, much less a renaissance, then the optimism may be counterproductive.

November 2, 2014

Haven’t Been Able to Get Uber in Saint Louis? Blame the Taxicab Commission

When the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission (MTC) altered its regulations in the past month to allow Uber, we warned that the rule changes did not go nearly far enough. We wrote:

. . . the MTC still plans to tightly control the supply of premium sedans available to Uber through the issuance of permits. Initially, the MTC will only issue 26 permits for premium services, and only five will be rewarded to new, single-vehicle operators. The rest will go to existing sedan companies that can afford three or more sedans. These smoke and mirror tricks, designed to make it appear that the MTC is becoming friendlier to other services and companies, are in reality reinforcing the restrictions on the entry and pricing of the taxi market.

As a result, Uber cannot hire new drivers as demand dictates; it can only use the limited pool of existing MTC-approved premium sedans.

The result, predictably, is that people who want to ride Uber’s premium service are often unable to. This mismatch between supply and demand hurts both Saint Louis residents hoping to use a service they want as well as Uber. MTC Director Ron Klein is unconcerned, stating, “We’re very flexible. . . . We just didn’t want to go out there and say, ‘Let’s add 100 [permits for black cars],’ and then have 75 guys standing around.” He stated that the MTC will vote on adding 26 cars next month, and might add more if Uber can prove there is a demand.

It should be readily apparent that demand exceeds supply if people are demanding Uber and there are no cars to send. Furthermore, why should the MTC, like a cabal of Gosplan apparatchiks, think it is appropriate for them to attempt to match supply and demand? Why should Uber have to prove demand before the MTC will consider allowing more black cars? When does it become obvious that MTC policies, far from ensuring safe taxi service, are limiting consumer choice and making the city a less attractive place to live?

If the MTC is so concerned about the quality of for-hire vehicle service in Saint Louis, they should limit the supply of regulations, not the number of premium sedans in the city. And if they can’t do that, perhaps residents should reduce the area’s supply of taxicab commissions. To zero.

November 1, 2014

Saint Louis City’s Growth: Trickle-Down Urbanism?

A look at the latest American Community Survey data confirms that income growth in Saint Louis City has been lackluster for the past decade. Since 2005, median income growth has lagged inflation by 6 percent, indicating falling real wages. But at the same time, some are proclaiming the return of the city, with new developments on Washington Avenue, Ballpark Village, and the Central West End pointing to a bright future.

These contradictory accounts of the city’s performance point to a more complex reality, a tale of different populations and neighborhoods. The bad news is that wages are stagnant and the poor and middle class continue to leave the city. From 2005 to 2013, Saint Louis City households whose income was less than $75,000 per year (more than twice the city’s median income) fell by 7.8 percent. But the good news is that wealthy households (earning more than $100,000 per year) increased by 78 percent. Households earning $200,000-plus per year more than doubled over the same period.

But as the map below demonstrates, lower income residents are most predominant in North and South Saint Louis City, while the very wealthy are most populous in the central corridor. That means increasing growth where growth is most visible, and stagnation and decline where it is out of sight, out of mind.


Saint Louis City’s planning strategies may have contributed to this bifurcated outcome. We have written before about the city’s attempt to generate density, walkable neighborhoods, and a vital downtown through lopsided investments to the central corridor. The city also uses tax incentives to subsidize high-end living and entertainment districts. Instead of fostering economic opportunity, which draws residents who will generate local culture from the bottom up, the city instead will become an entertainment machine, which will draw the creative class, who in turn will create jobs.

Even where this upended model succeeds (and there is no guarantee of that), there are questions as to whether this actually helps middle-class or poor residents, or simply makes them former middle-class or poor residents. Urban “renewal” in boutique cities like New York City and San Francisco has resulted in a displacement of the poor and middle class and rapidly rising income inequality. Although Saint Louis City is not NYC, income inequality is rising quickly. From 2005 to 2013, the city’s median income fell from 75.3 percent to 69.6 percent of the city’s mean income, indicating an increasingly top-heavy income distribution. This trend, compared to that of Saint Louis County, is shown below:



If leaders focus on making the city a safe, affordable, and easy place to live and do business, it is possible Saint Louis City could enjoy an expansive resurgence. But as things stand, the city is pushing more publicly supported bar districts, luxury apartments, and expensive amenities to draw the rich into the city center and hope the wealth trickles down to the rest. For areas like North Saint Louis, that could be a long wait.

October 31, 2014

Ridesharing an Option Regulators Want to Keep from Residents

Recently, Ray Mundy, a professor at UMSL (also the head of a consultant group that works for the nation’s top taxi companies and part of the staff of Airport Ground Transportation Association, an airport taxi lobbyist group), was interviewed on a local radio station. While Mundy failed to state his conflict of interest, he lost no time accusing ridesharing companies like Lyft and Uber of having improper background checks, using inadequate insurance, price gouging, and destroying the cab industry that the needy rely on. But in reality, his statements are misleading, and his recommendation to ban these services will only serve to hurt Missouri residents. I will take his issues point by point:

  1. Lyft and Uber have insurance gaps.

This statement may have had validity a few months ago, but this is no longer the case. In July, both Uber and Lyft changed their insurance policies so that cars operate under liability insurance whenever the ridesharing apps are activated. Commercial insurance becomes primary (not secondary as Mundy stated in the interview) when a passenger has been accepted. Both Lyft and Uber detail their policies, and no driver or customer needs to use these systems if they find them inadequate. But regulators and those of Mundy’s persuasion would rather legislate additional insurance (shown not to improve safety) or ban ridesharing.

  1. Every time the taxi industry has been deregulated, it’s been reregulated.

This statement is empirically false, as a Reason study demonstrates.

  1. Ridesharing companies do not perform adequate background checks.

Mundy claims Uber and Lyft drivers might be dangerous because they do not use the same type of background check as most cab companies. Peruse Uber’s qualifications for yourself:


According the Mundy, these tests do not go back as far as taxi checks and do not include arrests where there are no convictions. That seems like a contrived standard, and once again, customers can decide whether they feel Uber or Lyft drivers are safe. But Mundy and other regulators would rather residents did not have such options.

  1. Uber and Lyft use price gouging.

Mundy, and other defenders of taxi regulations, do not like Uber and Lyft using variable pricing, such as charging more money at different times of night or when demand is higher. In reality, allowing for higher fares means drivers have a larger incentive to take fares at 2 a.m. or on New Year’s Eve. It allows the price mechanism to match supply with demand. But Mundy and other regulators would rather Saint Louisans wait hours for cabs that don’t come rather than have the choice to pay a higher fare.

  1. Uber hurts the poor, because cab companies cannot cross-subsidize service.

It is well known that, despite stringent regulations, taxis around the country refuse fares and avoid depressed neighborhoods. The best protection against fare refusal and more service is a large, diverse supply of for-hire vehicles, which ridesharing can help provide. And what’s more, cities like Saint Louis spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on extensive public transit and para-transit services to serve the poor and the disabled. The for-hire vehicle market should not be regulated in order to duplicate those efforts.

If there is a common theme to Mundy’s and regulators’ arguments, it is that city officials, and not city residents, should decide whether ridesharing companies are safe enough, charge the right amount, and provide the right kind of service. But in reality, the corrective action of riders and drivers making their own decisions regarding Uber and Lyft are a far better test of all those criteria, and even Mundy admits the popularity of ridesharing where it has not been quashed by city government. The reality is that most Saint Louisans don’t see cabs as an option, because the service does not meet their needs. That’s a shame, because that hurts residents and hurts the city. But Mundy and the taxicab commission would rather keep it the way it is than let residents make their own choices.

October 30, 2014

Our Take on Amendment 3

There’s been a lot of talk about Amendment 3, which limits teacher contracts to three years and ties evaluations to personnel decisions. Some arguments against Amendment 3 are rational, evidence-based, and well thought out; others are not. In this post, we present our analysis of several arguments that have been made regarding Amendment 3. We conclude with some final thoughts on the matter.

(1) Amendment 3 will mandate more standardized tests.

Analysis: False.

Here’s what the ballot language says:

The majority of such evaluation system shall be based upon quantifiable student performance data as measured by objective criteria.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch claims:

. . . the worst thing about Amendment 3 is that it imposes an untested experiment on all local school districts in the state, requiring them to devise a new standardized test for students that becomes the primary evaluation tool for teachers. Don’t our children take enough standardized tests these days?

This is a tremendous overstatement. With the state tests that students already take and the multitude of internal assessments that districts already administer, there is no need for additional tests under this amendment. Moreover, there are other types of performance data, such as districtwide common assessments, which could fit within the Amendment 3 language.

(2) Amendment 3 takes away local control.

Analysis: Both true and false.

If we were moving from a neutral system to an Amendment 3 system, it would be a loss of local control. Of course, we are not moving from a neutral system. Current Missouri tenure laws grant teachers a permanent contract after five years within the same school district and prescribe the exact steps that districts must undertake to remove a tenured teacher. This is a clear loss of local control. Amendment 3 would remove these centrally imposed mandates and would also remove the disastrous “Last in, first out” provision.

Under an Amendment 3 system, contracts would be capped at three years. Amendment 3 would also mandate that districts make staffing decisions based on teacher evaluations. A majority of such evaluations must be based on student performance data. Aside from this provision, districts would largely get to shape their evaluations.

(3) If there is a problem with the new system, Amendment 3 would make it difficult to change policies in the future.

Analysis: True.

How much of a teacher’s evaluation is tied to quantitative data should not be in the state constitution. Ideally, policies such as this would be determined as close to home as possible. That is, authority to determine contract length and evaluation practices should be devolved to the local school district or set in state regulations that could be changed when necessary. Even statutory changes would be preferable to a constitutional change.

Final thoughts:

Proponents argue that Amendment 3 will lead to better teacher evaluations and more recognition for great teachers. Ultimately, they hope this will create an improved teacher workforce. There is just one fundamental problem with that argument—when it comes to teacher quality, we have what is known as a principal-agent problem. That is, we as citizens (the principal) want great teachers in our schools and we hire school administrators (the agent) to make sure this happens. If the agent does not do his or her job, there is little we can do about it. Ultimately, we are dependent upon the school administrator for hiring the right people, evaluating them effectively, and retaining the most effective teachers. If a school administrator lacks the will to remove low-performing teachers, there is little that parents can do about it. Amendment 3 does not change our fundamental principal-agent problem. It may remove tenure restrictions, but if school administrators lack the will, then nothing will change.

The only way to change this dynamic is through greater school choice. With school choice, a parent does not have to depend on an administrator to remove an ineffective teacher. The parent can simply choose to go somewhere else. This places pressure on school administrators to take a more active role in managing the teacher workforce. School choice is the answer to our principal-agent problem. School choice is the answer for improving the overall quality of the teacher workforce.

James Shuls contributed to this post.

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