The State of Wisconsin is Defunding Milwaukee

As budget debates and ARPA funding discussions heat up in Milwaukee, one thing has become crystal clear: The state has not been a good partner to its largest, most diverse city. That needs to change.

The Recombobulation Area is an award-winning weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

At Milwaukee City Hall, leaders are in the midst of crucial debates on funding for the 2022 city budget and for one-time funding from the American Rescue Plan. But does any of this have the chance to be transformative? iStock / Getty Images Plus

It’s a crucial time of year for policy-makers in Milwaukee. 

The Milwaukee Common Council has begun discussions on the $1.75 billion proposed 2022 budget from Mayor Tom Barrett, and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley just last week unveiled his $1.28 billion proposed budget for next year. 

Any budget for a city and county of Milwaukee’s size is always a big deal, but this year’s budget cycle is like none other in recent history. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), passed earlier this year by Democrats in Congress and signed by President Joe Biden, is bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to Milwaukee. A big piece of ARPA is its infusion of financial resources — $350 billion in total — to help local governments respond to the pandemic, replace lost revenue, and address underlying issues exacerbated by the pandemic. It also presents a one-time opportunity for local governments to make the kinds of investments they might not otherwise be able to consider, the types of undertakings that could really lift a city, a chance to take bold action to  emerge stronger from the depths of this devastating pandemic.

From ARPA, the City of Milwaukee is receiving about $394.2 million, and Milwaukee County is receiving $183 million. These funds present a massive opportunity for the city and county.

Or rather, they should. 

What’s unfolding in reality is that these funds appear to be becoming temporary stop-gap measures that will bide Milwaukee’s time as it careens toward a cliff of financial crisis. 

Crowley wrote in an op-Ed that “for Milwaukee County, this is not “once in a generation” or “transformational” funding. It’s a lifeline to keep critical services running.” Barrett recently surprised the Common Council by recommending that $55 million of the city’s first $197 million ARPA installment be put toward lost revenue as a result of the pandemic. Public discussions are still underway to determine how these funds will be spent, but it’s being made clear that these federal funds are not going toward opportunities for real transformation. 

Because the fact is this: The long-term outlook for Milwaukee’s local government, both city and county, is dire. 

For the city, a new report this week showed that without a solution to the city’s pension problem, 24% of its workforce — about 1,300 people — could be let go between 2023 and 2025. 

The grim outlook for the county’s finances is nothing new — we wrote about its looming crisis here in 2019 — and is an even more dire situation. Introducing his budget last week, David Crowley said that by 2027, there will be no funding left for local priorities at Milwaukee County. Less than six years and Milwaukee County will be fundamentally out of money. Remarkably, this statement — that the government for the state’s largest county, home to nearly a million people, would be out of money in less than six years -- has not since registered as a major news story in Wisconsin. 

What’s happening here is that the state of Wisconsin mandates that the county provide certain services — court services, certain social programs, etc. — and these currently consume more than 70% of the county’s budget. That number is growing to 100% by 2027. Meaning that by then, as Crowley said, “Milwaukee County will not have enough money to fund essential services not mandated by the state like parks, bus routes, emergency services, arts, senior services, public safety, disability services, and youth services.”

Such an outcome is obviously unacceptable. The city and county need to act now. But because of the way Wisconsin is structured for state and local governments, Milwaukee cannot take action alone. It certainly would have if that path were available, but local governments do not have much local control in Wisconsin. No other Midwestern state has a tax structure like Wisconsin’s. Cities and counties need the state’s help. It’s not an ideal system.

Which brings us to what’s at the core of the problem: The Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Legislature. It’s not just the shameful rhetoric and not-so-veiled insults that Republican leaders often lob at Milwaukee, which in itself is deeply harmful, especially when those words come with a certain dog whistle to their tone. It’s also that the legislature — under total Republican control for the last decade — has squeezed Milwaukee financially, directly contributing to the circumstances the city and county find themselves in at this crucial moment.

They’ve done so, primarily, in two ways.

One is through shrinking shared revenue payments going to local municipalities like Milwaukee. The amount in taxes that come from Milwaukee and go to the state have been steadily rising, but the amount coming back to the city and county have remained flat. This essentially amounts to a major budget cut for Milwaukee. 

And this isn’t just a small shift for a year or two we’re talking about. This is now hundreds of millions of dollars over nearly two decades that Milwaukee is missing out on. 

As Urban Milwaukee’s Jeramey Jannene writes: “In 2003, the state shared revenue formula (originally intended and used for more than a century as a rebate of income taxes) allocated $249.9 million to the city. In 2021, it is providing $229.4 million, a $20.5 million reduction. If the 2003 figure was adjusted for inflation and left as is, the city would be receiving an additional $118.5 million annually. That creates a massive hole in the city budget.”

Needless to say, if the city had another $118.5 million each year, ongoing conversation about Milwaukee’s finances and its future would look very different. 

It’s not just this grotesque shared revenue imbalance that’s squeezing Milwaukee. Unlike in most states, Wisconsin law says that local municipalities like Milwaukee cannot raise sales tax revenue without permission from the state. Despite a recent proposal from Gov. Tony Evers, the state legislature has not granted that permission, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said it’s “never going to happen.”

Having to raise sales tax is no ideal outcome. There are more progressive tax structures that would be more equitable. But more and more, it is becoming clear that Milwaukee needs its own revenue source, one independent of what’s going on down the road in Madison, one that cannot be threatened by a hostile state legislature or governor. We need local control.

The Bucks’ championship run delivered a defining moment for Milwaukee, but none of the tax revenue generated through the playoffs is going to the City of Milwaukee. Jamie Sabau / Stringer. Getty Images North America.

We just witnessed a perfect example of a scenario that should greatly benefit Milwaukee, but instead, saw the city cut out of the funding equation.

The Bucks delivered a championship run for the ages in Milwaukee, with tens of thousands of people flooding the streets and packing Fiserv Forum and the Deer District night after night from May to July, cheering their team on to an NBA Finals victory. But none of the tax revenue generated by that remarkable championship run will go to the City of Milwaukee. Almost all of the millions in additional sales tax revenue from the playoffs will go to the Wisconsin Center District and to the state of Wisconsin. Without the ability to have any semblance of local control, Milwaukee will inevitably miss out in circumstances like this one. And the state, while happy to collect that money, will still keep chipping away at Milwaukee’s budget by reducing its shared revenue from these very taxes. The Wisconsin State Legislature, the entity with by far the largest amount of control over state finances, has boxed the city in, and not even an event like the first championship in the city in 50 years can truly break through.

So, in turn, being boxed in like this gravely affects the day-to-day operations of the city and its ability to meet crises when they occur.


Take what’s happening right now, for example. Milwaukee is currently experiencing an increase in violent crime, gun violence in particular. Community leaders have denounced this unprecedented violence, and naturally, police funding has been part of this conversation. Mayor Barrett this week took the state legislature to task about its lack of partnership in addressing the issue, saying “We have a state legislature that’s filled with people who say they’re against crime and don’t want to let the largest city in the state pay the bills for the police department, so that angers me as well.”

Police funding is, of course, a tricky, complex issue. Regardless of where you stand on it, it too comes back to the funding formula, and Barrett is right to point that out. Because the facts are that Wisconsin ranks last in the country in state spending on law enforcement and in the top ten in municipal spending on law enforcement, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum. Milwaukee is on the high end of that list for municipalities nationwide, ranking second-highest among America’s largest cities for the percentage of city funds it spends on policing (58%, behind only Billings, Mont.). How much more can (or should) Milwaukee really be expected to fund its police, without state assistance? 

If you think that Milwaukee’s police department should see a decrease in funding so that other city services remain funded, as African-American Roundtable and Liberate MKE have argued, that argument is more than valid, and is one potential path forward. If you’re on the other side of that debate and want to see an increase in police funding, but don’t want to see a disruption to other stretched-thin services, or perhaps you’re somewhere in the middle and want to see MPD’s budget remain as-is while other city services see funding increases, the most clear path forward would be through action at the state level — by adjusting shared revenue or allowing for local control. Without it, cuts for the police department — and every city department — are inevitable. 

There are plenty more examples of how this impacts the city and county beyond police funding. Take the County Parks, for example. The defunding of Milwaukee County has impacted few departments more, as there continues to a nine-figure deferred maintenance backlog for a part of the city that’s been a genuine asset, and there appears to be no solution in sight beyond death by a thousand cuts. And 2027 will come sooner than we think.

The bottom line is this: Wisconsin’s funding formula is broken. It is doing drastic harm to Milwaukee. ARPA funds will help, but only to plug some holes, and only as a one-time fix. We need a long-term solution. We need the state shared revenue equation to be rebalanced. We need local control in Milwaukee.

More than anything, we need the state to be a real partner to its largest city. We need Wisconsin to stop defunding Milwaukee.

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

Subscribe to The Recombobulation Area newsletter here and follow us on Facebook at @therecombobulationarea.

Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

What Does It Mean for Wisconsin To Be “On The Map"?

It's a term often used when things are going well. But it cuts both ways.

The Recombobulation Area is an award-winning weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., drew people from all over the country and the world to the shores of Lake Michigan for the Ryder Cup. Photo by Mike Ehrmann / Staff. Getty Images.

With the Brewers clinching the NL Central on Sunday in Milwaukee at a sold out American Family Field, the Packers delivering a thrilling win on Sunday Night Football, and Kohler’s Whistling Straits playing host to a U.S. victory in the Ryder Cup, it was another big sports weekend in the state of Wisconsin. 

With the Ryder Cup, in particular, bringing people from all over the nation and the world to visit southeastern Wisconsin, it gave many an opportunity to talk up the state and sing its praises.

And with good reason! Wisconsin is a wonderful state and when the right moment comes along, it’s important that we let people know just how great it can really be here.

One of those common refrains that you’ll hear in times like these is that a big event or a big moment like this really puts Wisconsin “on the map.”

But, what exactly does that mean?

For as often as it’s said, perhaps we should take a moment to think about what we’re talking about when we talk about being “on the map.”


This term is something we’ve heard a lot this summer. Bucks officials and Common Council members said this summer’s championship run put Milwaukee and Wisconsin “on the map.” It was a phrase that was said ad nauseum by those bringing the DNC to Milwaukee. The phrase comes up a lot in moments of accomplishment around here (and sometimes in moments where that accomplishment merely is a mirage, too). 

The obvious part of what they’re referring to when they say that is a celebration of recognition, more or less, of standing out among the rest, of getting people to notice you who otherwise wouldn’t. And that’s a good thing, of course. But let’s not pretend that being “on the map” doesn’t cut both ways. Wisconsin puts itself “on the map” all the time in ways no one should be proud of, and often reflects poorly on our state.  

For as much as Milwaukee can be the City of Champions and Wisconsin can be a wonderful place, this state gets a lot of rather undesirable national attention on a fairly regular basis. 

Just look at our national politicians who regularly make their way into headlines and news shows. Like Ron Johnson, who has gleefully promoted ivermectin (even the horse paste kind!) as a covid treatment and this week said vaccinating people during a pandemic “could be dangerous.” He’s on national television or radio on a near daily basis. Or how about Glenn Grothman, who was using crucial time on the House floor debating the most recent stimulus bill to use racist stereotypes to talk about Black families. Or how about when State Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley made national headlines when she equated the state’s “stay-at-home” order from the early days of the pandemic to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. 

Or take the recent story of Waukesha’s school district opting out of a free school lunch program for its students. Or Robin Vos’ sham election “investigation,” which has attracted national attention (as has State Rep. Janel Brandtjen’s somehow even less legitimate undertaking), and is bound to draw even more as it comes to a conclusion. A national Los Angeles Times piece just examined the startling rise in Milwaukee’s homicide rate. Our state’s chaotic approach to managing the coronavirus — from the tragic spring election to the court decision that abruptly tossed statewide response measures to the dangerous covid spike in fall and winter — has regularly made its way into national headlines. In Wisconsin, it’s always something. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this list of terms legislative Republicans are looking to ban from schools — things like “equity,” “multiculturalism” and “social justice” — draw some fresh attention from outside the state.

The point is, we’re “on the map” all the time, just not always for the reasons we’d want to be. 

So often in the Before Times — when the news cycle was perhaps a bit slower and less serious — Milwaukee would often be tripping over itself to discuss and promote any new list that would rank it as the “best new” this or the “most underrated” that, all with the thought that this kind of attention was putting us “on the map” in some way. City leaders, particularly in the business community, talked endlessly throughout the 2010s about Milwaukee’s “perception” problem, but failed to address the realities that were so often driving it. 

Talking about “perception” is always a convenient way for leaders to criticize something that’s unquantifiable, and therefore, difficult to dispute. But it is something that matters. The perception of this state matters in how people see it as a place to build their lives. If they see the chaos and dysfunction and prejudice in our politics, it’s going to be a place that struggles to see the possibility in its next generation’s future fully realized. 

Let’s celebrate wins like when the Bucks win the city’s first championship in 50 years, absolutely. But we can’t make putting Wisconsin “on the map” an actual priority. It is mostly nonsense terminology, and not a meaningful goal. 

Milwaukee and Wisconsin finding its place “on the map” is little more than an inevitability. What we do that puts there is what really matters. We can keep striving for those grandiose celebratory moments that put us on the map in a positive way, but we need to address the bad moments that put us “on the map” in a negative light, too. For as much as the term is used, we have to recognize that it cuts both ways. 

Aim for new heights and strive for fresh eyes to recognize the great city of Milwaukee and state of Wisconsin, of course. But let’s clean up the other side of that equation, too, because these perception cartographers will put us “on the map” regardless of the merits of our actions.

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

Subscribe to The Recombobulation Area newsletter here and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @therecombobulationarea.

Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

Send in your questions for our Live Q&A with Kristin Brey of As Goes Wisconsin (6 p.m.! Boone & Crockett!)

The Recombobulation Area's 2nd Anniversary Party is Thursday, Sept. 23. After the Live Q&A, we'll be rewatching Game Six of the NBA Finals. #BucksInSix

The Recombobulation Area is an award-winning weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

It’s almost time! The Recombobulation Area’s 2nd anniversary party is TOMORROW NIGHT!

Be there at the Boone & Crockett from 6-10 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 23. The event is FREE!

Here’s what’s happening at this, our first-ever (!) event: 

- 6:30: Live Q&A with yours truly and Kristin Brey from As Goes Wisconsin 

- 7:30: We’re rewatching the greatest moment in Milwaukee sports history, Game 6 of the NBA Finals! #BucksInSix 

Because, well, as Kristin puts it, “When you pay this close attention to Wisconsin politics, you double down on joy when you can."

Check in at our Facebook event here for any updates the day of the party.

At the event, we are keeping everyone’s safety in mind, so the entire even will be held outside on the patio, where we can watch the game on a 70-inch flatscreen. Masks are required indoors. And if you’re not vaccinated, don’t come! (Seriously, don’t come.)

And be advised, the weather forecast is currently showing that it will be getting down into the 50s as the sun sets, and the Boone Patio is right on the water, so plan accordingly. It is now Fall in Milwaukee, after all.

ALSO: Our brand new T-shirts will be available for $20, exclusively at this event. As will some Bucks T-shirts from our friends at As Goes Wisconsin.

ONE MORE THING: We’re offering a big subscription discount to celebrate our 2nd birthday! 

A full-year subscription to The Recombobulation Area is now 50% OFF. Go here — — for this special offer to help support local, independent journalism in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. Let’s keep building this thing, together.

And at the Live Q&A, we’ll be taking questions from you, the readers, just like we do for our regular mailbag editions of this here column. So, even if you’re not able to make it in person, you can still be part of the event. 

So send in your questions to, tweet them to @DanRShafer, find us on Instagram at @therecombobulationarea, or leave a comment below. 

Tomorrow night, let’s recombobulate. Together. 

Boone & Crockett is located at 818 S Water St, Milwaukee, WI 53204. 

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

Subscribe to The Recombobulation Area newsletter here and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @therecombobulationarea.

Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

Coalition Proposes New Alternative to I-94 Expansion

The proposal recommends converting the Stadium Freeway to a boulevard and also includes the repair and modernization of the 3.5-mile stretch of interstate along with a new bus rapid transit line. 

The Recombobulation Area is an award-winning weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

A coalition opposed to the proposed expansion of the East-West corridor of I-94 in Milwaukee has released a new alternative plan that includes repairs of pavement and bridges within the highway’s current six-lane footprint, a new bus rapid transit route, additional pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and converting the Stadium Freeway into a boulevard.

The report — “Fix at Six: A Sustainable Alternative to Expanding I-94 in Milwaukee” — comes from a group known as the Coalition for More Responsible Transportation (CMRT), which includes 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, ACLU of Wisconsin, Midwestern Environmental Advocates, Sierra Club-Wisconsin Chapter, Wisconsin Environment and WISPIRG. The study unveils the coalition’s “Transit/Rehab Alternative.”

Supporters from Milwaukee Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), Wisconsin Bike Fed, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, and Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action spoke at an event unveiling the proposed alternative on Tuesday, Sept. 14. 

“This is a generational investment in Milwaukee’s transportation system,” said Gregg May, transportation policy director at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. “We should be pursuing a future that actually meets the needs of the people near the project corridor. The Transit/Rehab alternative lays out a path forward that is both feasible and reflective of the community’s desire for more walking, biking and transit options.”

The urban interstate currently has a total of six lanes, and the proposed expansion would grow that number to eight, with a new lane going in each direction. It would also expand the stadium interchange near American Family Field and reconstruct five more interchanges along the 3.5-mile stretch of highway on the city of Milwaukee’s west side. The name of the “Fix at Six” alternative proposal refers to repairing the highway, but keeping the total number of lanes the same. 

While the groups forming this coalition are opposed to the widening of the 3.5-mile East-West corridor of I-94 and expansion of the stadium interchange in this $1.1 billion proposed project, even the most ardent highway expansion opponents have been in favor of repair and modernization of the interstate. 

Craig Thompson, Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) Secretary designee, said in an interview with The Recombobulation Area earlier this year that a repair/modernization option would cost between $800 million and $850 million. But expansion opponents have contended that WisDOT has never meaningfully examined the option of fixing the highway in its existing footprint. 

While the proposed expansion of the highway was advanced by both Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-controlled state legislature, the start of construction has been delayed to 2022, at the earliest. WisDOT announced in April that it would be undertaking a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the project. Thompson said this undertaking would include a robust public engagement process. 

The 43-page “Fix at Six” report aims to start that conversation with a comprehensive look at what a real alternative proposal could be. 

The plan prioritizes modernizing the highway, and would include such aspects as replacing pavement, repairing bridges, fixing safety hotspots, downsizing interchanges and ramps, accommodating more transit, minimizing stormwater runoff, remediating harmful effects on racial equity, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  

Additional key aspects in the study include proposals for a new bus rapid transit (BRT) route along National and Greenfield avenues, and plans to convert Wisconsin Highway 175 — the Stadium Freeway — to a boulevard.

The Recombobulation Area’s “Expanding the Divide” series explored the need for more transit options like BRT, and advocated for the Stadium Freeway to be converted to a boulevard

Construction is now underway on the $55 million East-West BRT line that will run nine miles from the Couture high-rise at the lakefront to the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa. An additional North-South BRT that would run the length of Milwaukee County from Glendale to Oak Creek is also being discussed

This proposed National/Greenfield BRT line would run from the Wisconsin Center downtown, past such locations as the Milwaukee Intermodal, Harley-Davidson Museum, Potawatomi Bingo Casino, the Cesar Chavez commercial district, the Silver City neighborhood, and the Zablocki VA Center to the corner of 108th Street (Highway 100) and Greenfield Avenue in West Allis.

The report also calls for exploring future opportunities in commuter rail, with one option shown here in conjunction with other BRT lines. 

With the Stadium Freeway, the proposal to convert it to a boulevard comes with a particular emphasis on making it bicycle and pedestrian friendly. 

The report says converting it from a highway spur to an at-grade boulevard “could help to tame traffic in the corridor, rebuild and reconnect the neighborhoods it now passes through, increase wetlands and open space, protect water and air quality, and provide redevelopment and recreational opportunities.” It also says ramps and interchanges should be analyzed for locations for downsizing. The report also says plans should advance to eventually replace I-794 in downtown Milwaukee with an at-grade boulevard.

Altogether, the “Transit/Rehab Alternative” includes four main points. Here’s how the report breaks it down:

1. Repair the road’s pavement and bridges as needed, but minimize new pavement and keep the current six lanes. WisDOT’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) discusses the pavement deficiencies and makes a strong case that full replacement is needed. The new pavement should be designed using the latest and best techniques for minimizing carbon footprint, managing stormwater, maximizing safety, and sustaining a long life.

2. Add a new bus rapid transit (BRT) line along National and Greenfield avenues. The East-West Corridor is full of opportunities for adding transit. This second line, augmented by future north-south lines, would improve the throughput of people in the corridor while reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and air emissions. To further environmental justice goals, support should be given to the new north-south BRT route along 27th Street as proposed by the MPO.

3. Promote thriving, walkable/bikeable neighborhoods in the East-West Corridor by building bicycle infrastructure near the corridor as listed in the 2010 Milwaukee Bicycle Master Plan. This includes on bridges crossing the Menomonee Valley, and turning Wisconsin Highway 175 (Stadium Freeway) into a bicycle and pedestrian friendly boulevard that connects communities. The goal is to create safer streets that address traffic-related deaths by fixing dangerous arterials near the I-94 corridor.

4. Explore future opportunities to maximize sustainable alternatives including additional north-south BRT routes, commuter rail, and better housing and zoning practices including Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).

Read the full press release announcing the plan here.

Read the full report here

Read The Recombobulation Area’s multi-part “Expanding the Divide” series, an in-depth look at the proposed expansion of the 3.5-mile East-West corridor of I-94.

Watch Dan Shafer discuss the series on “Our Issues Milwaukee.”

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

Subscribe to The Recombobulation Area newsletter here and follow us on Facebook at @therecombobulationarea.

Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

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