Whopper Highway? Virginia considers selling road-naming rights

Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnellIn Virginia, the road to a pothole-free ride may be over the Big Mac Bridge.

Gov. Robert McDonnell is proposing selling the naming rights for the state’s bridges and highways in order to generate funds for road maintenance.

Transit systems are already selling naming rights for stations -- AT&T Station in Philadelphia, for example. And legislation to allow school boards to sell the naming rights for school cafeterias has been introduced in Florida. But the idea is controversial.

"My initial reaction is that the thought of my GPS telling me to take the Starbucks Bridge and make a right onto Burger King Drive is rather depressing, and would represent yet more ceding of public space to private interests," said Max R. Ashburn of Scenic America, a Washington, D.C.,-based group.

Elizabeth Ben-Ishai, campaign coordinator for Commercial Alert, a project of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said the proposal would turn the state into a marketer working on behalf of corporate interests.

"Naming public entities after corporations, instead of, for example, local or national heroes and historical figures, shows a real decline in our values," she told The Times. "It sends the message to citizens that every aspect of their state is for sale, undermining the value and virtues of public space.''

Virginia transportation officials would establish the rules, including how much the state should charge a corporation for naming rights, if the state’s General Assembly gives the green light to the governor's proposal.

“Virginia is looking for all innovative funding methods that can help address our transportation needs without raising taxes on our citizens during these difficult economic times,” said Jeff Caldwell, press secretary for the governor. 

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-- Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.

Photo:  Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks during a news conference Jan. 16. Credit: Alexa Welch Edlund/Richmond Times-Dispatch/Associated Press


Virginia to Washington, D.C.: Keep your rats to yourself

Rat
The message to Washington, D.C., from neighboring Virginia: Rats to you.

That would seem to sum up Virginia Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli’s view of a Washington law that he says could lead the nation’s capital to send its rats across the Potomac.

Cuccinelli told CNSNews.com that Washington’s Wildlife Protection Act of 2010 requires pest control companies to capture rats "and capture them in families -- you figure out how you’re going to do that with rats -- and then you’ve got to relocate them." He's worried they’ll end up in Virginia.

"Not true," said Mary Cheh, the Washington councilwoman who sponsored the law, which she said seeks to require that other forms of wildlife, not rats, be treated as humanely as possible.

The law expressly exempts rats, she said in a statement. "I would have hoped that people would have been inclined to read the bill before raging against it."

In spite of that assurance, Maryland State Delegate Patrick McDonough said in an interview Friday that he plans to introduce the Rat Trafficking Act to block the relocation of any rats to his state.

The controversy comes as Washington’s mayor has complained about rats at the Occupy DC sites.

Cheh has been receiving nasty emails from around the country since Cuccinelli made his comments, which were picked up by conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh.

“ ‘Babe,' " she said, was "not the only four-letter word I was called in the emails."

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-- Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Washington, D.C.'s, Wildlife Protection Act of 2010 has Virginia and Maryland worried that the district might capture its rats and send them to neighboring states. The sponsor of that law dismisses such fears, suggesting critics actually read the law. Credit: Julie Jacobson / Associated Press


First, a sex offender registry. Next, an animal abuser registry?

A dog waits for adoption.
Animal abusers, take heed. Efforts to establish online registries for animal abusers, like the ones for sex offenders, are gaining support, with legislation pending or soon-to-be-introduced in at least five states.

Among the efforts is one from Florida state Sen. Mike Fasano, who has proposed Dexter’s law, named after a kitten that was beaten to death in his state. His proposal would require convicted animal abusers to register with authorities. Their names, home addresses and photographs would be posted online, and they would be required to pay $50 a year to maintain the registry.

Registries also have been proposed in Maryland, Colorado, Arizona and New York. Stephan K. Otto, director of legislative affairs for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, expects similar proposals in more states.

Suffolk County on Long Island in 2010 moved to create a registry, and has since been followed by two other New York counties. No names appear on the Suffolk County registry yet, because it was only recently set up. Convicted abusers will appear on the registry for five years. Those failing to register are subject to a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

The New York counties also require pet stores and animal shelters to check the names of anyone seeking to adopt or buy an animal against the registry, Otto said.

Maryland State Sen. Ronald Young said he plans to introduce legislation in the wake of two incidents in his state. In one, a Yorkshire terrier was thrown off a 23-foot-high balcony; the dog, Louie, survived. In the other, a golden retriever puppy named Heidi was shot to death.

"Just too many people are mistreating and killing animals,’’ Young said in an interview.

A bill to create such a registry in California, introduced in 2010, didn’t make it through the Legislature, partly because of concerns about its cost.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund says the registries can reduce the number of abused animals and serve as an early warning system for potentially violent criminals, citing cases of serial killers who had tortured animals as children. Otto said they also can save taxpayers money by reducing the cost for caring for and treating abused animals.

Among the issues that need to be addressed is who should be required to register? Should it include "someone who took their golden retriever out one day, went into a 7-Eleven, but it was too hot outside, and the dog died," asked Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles.

Otto said that some states have looked to limit the registry to felons.

Liberty Watch Colorado, in its blog, called the legislation "an unnecessary expansion of government.''

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-- Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.

Photo: A homeless dog waits for adoption in Los Angeles. Five states are moving to create registries for people convicted of abusing animals. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times


As cities' struggles persist, Congress must act, mayors say

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

Nearly a fourth of the nation’s metropolitan areas -- including the Los Angeles region -- will struggle for five more years to regain jobs lost in the Great Recession, according to an economic forecast issued by the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Wednesday.

With the mayors gathered in Washington for their winter meeting, the forecast is part of their effort to prod Congress into passing jobs-creation legislation.

"Congress has jumped ship," said the conference president, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, likening lawmakers to the captain of the wrecked Italian cruise ship accused of leaving the vessel before its passengers were evacuated. "The economy is sinking as we speak, and they’re sitting on a lifeboat refusing to throw out a life preserver to the American people."

But the mayors face a difficult time getting a divided Congress to do anything in an election year with  partisan tensions running high. Further, they face an uphill battle staving off more federal aid cuts sought by congressional Republicans determined to reduce the federal budget deficit.

"Nobody stops you on the street and says, 'What are you doing about the deficit and the debt?' People ask you, 'How are you going to help me get a job?' " Villaraigosa said at a media breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

"If you were to grade the Congress last year, they’d get an F," Villaraigosa said. "There’s been virtually nothing done to put people back to work."

Later, at a news conference at the Capital Hilton, the L.A. mayor said: "Not all spending is equal. The fact is we do have to cut our deficits .... But you can't cut your way out of this crisis. You've got to make investments, too.''

"There are smart cuts and there are dumb cuts,'' added Scott Smith, Republican mayor of Mesa, Ariz., who joined Villaraigosa at a news conference. "Smart cuts are cuts of inefficiencies. Dumb cuts are cuts when you cut the meat out of programs that ... create economic growth.''

Villaraigosa continued his criticism of Congress in a speech to other mayors -- a speech that included references to Rodney Dangerfield (cities aren't getting enough respect) and Yogi Berra (congressional inaction was "deja vu all over again'').

The Democratic mayor put most of the blame on Republicans who control the House but said members of his own party also haven’t done enough.

Villaraigosa called on Congress to pass a transportation bill -- one that would include money he has sought to speed expansion of L.A.'s regional transportation system -- and to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits. He also urged Congress to preserve funding for the Community Block Grant program, a key funding source for local efforts to generate jobs, revitalize run-down neighborhoods and help low-income residents.

He said he was open to finding ways to reduce government spending and increase revenue, such as closing tax loopholes, but considered infrastructure spending critical to the nation's economic recovery.

U.S. nonfarm payrolls are projected to grow 1.3% this year, not fast enough to reduce the unemployment rate below 8% nationally, according to a report  by IHS Global Insight, which predicts that by the end of the year the nation will have gained back nearly half of the jobs lost in the Great Recession.

"Despite this progress," Villaraigosa said, "the recovery is slow and it’s uneven."

For nearly 80 metropolitan areas, full recovery is more than five years away. "The recovery is very uneven across U.S. regions, with the southeastern and southwesten metro [area]s, who were the most affected by the housing bubble, looking ahead to years of recovery," the report says.

The report predicts that the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana metropolitan area will, by the end of this year, recover only about a fifth of the jobs lost in the Great Recession.

Villaraigosa bemoaned the hyper-partisanship in Washington and delivered a pitch for funding high-speed rail. He and other mayors were due to meet with President Obama at the White House later.

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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Credit: Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times


Threatened by giant snakes, U.S. will ban import of 4 species

Python
Federal officials on Tuesday announced a ban on the import and interstate transport of Burmese pythons and three other nonnative species of snakes, calling them a threat to the environment, especially in Florida.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made the announcement in that state, where an estimated 150,000 pythons are believed to inhabit the Everglades. Last year, a 16-foot python killed in the Everglades was found to have a 76-pound deer in its stomach. In 2005, a 13-foot python was found dead in the Everglades after it burst itself trying to digest a 6-foot alligator.

The announcement was welcomed by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who has pushed for a congressional ban on a number of nonnative species of snakes. In 2009, he placed the skin of a 17-foot python on the table at a Capitol Hill hearing held shortly after an 8 1/2-foot-long pet Burmese python broke out of a terrarium and strangled a 2-year-old Florida girl in her bedroom.

Nelson’s office said Tuesday that when pythons started showing up in the Everglades in large numbers a few years ago, "most folks laughed off the threat from the huge, nonnative snakes as just another Florida nuisance -- little worse than some swamp acreage salesman." But, his office noted, attitudes have changed, especially after incidents such as one in which a python showed up in a Florida family’s swimming pool.

"The Burmese python has already gained a foothold in the Florida Everglades, and we must do all we can to battle its spread and to prevent further human contributions of invasive snakes that cause economic and environmental damage," Salazar said in a statement.

Although other Obama administration regulations have drawn fire from congressional Republicans, this ban has received bipartisan congressional support.

Still, Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) criticized the administration’s action as a "half measure," saying in a statement that it falls short of banning the import and interstate transport of nine species of "invasive predators that pose a severe threat to our native wildlife."

Sixty days after publication of the final rule, import and interstate transport of the Burmese python, northern and southern African pythons and yellow anaconda into the U.S. will be prohibited. Those who own any of these four species of snakes will be allowed to keep them if allowed by state law, according to federal officials. However, they cannot take, send or sell them across state lines.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is exploring the possibility of adding other species to the ban.

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-- Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar watches park rangers as they prepare to put a 13-foot python in a bag in the Everglades on Tuesday. Salazar announced the ban on importation and interstate transportation of four giant snake species that threaten the Everglades. Credit: Alan Diaz / Associated Press


Shifting election day to weekend poses problems, report says

Voting
It seems like a good idea. Why not move elections to the weekend in an effort to boost voter turnout?

But the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has found challenges to the proposal. It could be difficult to find workers to staff polling places on weekends and locate replacements for some of the usual voting sites like churches.

"Most election officials we interviewed expect great difficulty and costs associated with a weekend election," the GAO said.  

The report, ordered by a House committee, was drafted in response to the Weekend Voting Act, a bill by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.). Israel has proposed holding federal elections on Saturday and Sunday. Weekend voting, he has contended, would increase voter turnout and reduce lines at the polls by eliminating the peak voting times that occur on a Tuesday.

Congress in 1845 chose Tuesday for a voting day to give farmers enough time to get to county seats and vote without interfering with market or religious days.

Jacob Soboroff, executive director of WhyTuesday.org, which works to increase voter turnout, said in an interview, "You’ll never know how weekend voting is going to affect turnout unless we try it."

Responding to concerns about the cost of weekend voting, he added: "At the end of the day, we believe the cost to our nation is far higher in having lower voter participation than a small increase in the monetary cost of administering elections."

Israel, who introduced his bill in 2009 and plans to reintroduce it in this Congress, said in a statement that Tuesday voting is difficult for single parents, those who work long hours and those with a hectic commute.

"Tuesdays made sense in a different time in our history, but not in 2012." he said. "My legislation would have Americans join much of the rest of the world voting on weekends when it’s more convenient.”

A GAO survey of election officials, however, found concerns about the challenge and cost of securing ballots and voting equipment over the Saturday night of a weekend election.

Recruiting polling workers could be another problem.

"Election officials in one local jurisdiction said that about one-fourth of their approximately 23,000 poll workers for the 2010 general election were county employees and students. A weekend election would essentially end the incentives -- paying county employees their salary and excusing students from classes -- that the jurisdiction successfully used in the past to attract them to work at the polls on a Tuesday when they would normally be at work or at school," the report says.

But the report noted that some election officials surveyed did not anticipate difficulties finding the poll workers for a weekend election "because a larger pool of volunteers who work Monday through Friday might be available."

It was unclear whether weekend voting would increase voter turnout, according to the GAO.

"Election officials in the nine states and the District where we conducted interviews said that they expected moving election day from a Tuesday to a Saturday and Sunday would have little to no effect on total voter turnout," the report said.

In the 2010 general election, 35 states and the District of Columbia provided alternatives to voting on election day such as voting by mail, absentee voting, or in-person early voting. GAO reviewed 24 studies that found such alternatives had little effect on turnout, although voting by mail appeared to have the greatest effect.

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Occupy D.C. rat infestation prompts calls to clear out protesters

 --Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: A sign points motorists toward a polling place this week in New Hampshire. Credit: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images


Occupy D.C. rat infestation prompts calls to clear out protesters

The rat infestation at Occupy D.C. has become so serious that protesters should be cleared out of their encampment at a federal park near the White House, said Washington Mayor Vincent C. Gray

The rat infestation at Occupy D.C. has become so serious that protesters should be cleared out of their encampment at a federal park near the White House, said Washington Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

Conditions at the encampment are a "threat to the health and safety of both protesters and district residents," Gray said in a letter to the National Park Service. "Rodents have been seen not only around the site, but inside tents and even in the food preparation area."

At a minimum, the mayor said, the protesters who have been living in tents at McPherson Square for more than three months should be consolidated with another encampment at nearby Freedom Plaza to allow crews to clean up the park and eliminate the rat infestation.

A report by the District of Columbia Health Department says Freedom Plaza is "the more organized’’ Occupy D.C. site, "with a greater attempt being made to adhere to good sanitary practices with waste disposal and food preparation."

Because McPherson Square is federal property, the decision rests with the park service. There was no immediate response from the agency to Gray's letter.

The mayor's office also is seeking reimbursement from Uncle Sam for its $1.6 million in costs, such as police patrols, in dealing with the Occupy D.C. sites.

Concerns about the McPherson Square site were further heightened this week after a 13-month-old baby was left alone in a tent at the encampment for at least half an hour with the temperature in the mid-40s.

Nearby protesters heard the infant crying and called police. A man who said he was her father has been charged with child cruelty.

The D.C. Health Department said in a report that although Occupy D.C protesters contend the man was not part of their group, "the ongoing mixture of homeless, people suffering from mental illness and protesters continues to exacerbate unsafe conditions" at the encampments.

The cold also is a growing concern, Gray said, noting that makeshift heaters that some protesters are using to heat tents have created the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

It's an awkward problem for Gray, a protester himself who was arrested last year at the U.S. Capitol, charged with blocking Constitution Avenue in an act of civil disobedience. He was among a group demonstrating against congressional dictates on the district, such as a measure preventing it from spending its own funds on abortions for low-income women. He said such measures "violated the rights of district residents to autonomy and self-determination."

Health officials have advised the protesters on how to keep sanitary conditions, and one Occupy D.C. demonstrator said earlier this week that those in the park are working to clean it. But he added, "There have always been rats in downtown D.C."

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been upset about the encampment in a park that recently underwent $400,000 in taxpayer-funded improvements. He called Gray's description of the conditions at the McPherson Square "a blunt assessment of the situation created by the National Park Service's decision to ignore laws designed to protect the public.''

Issa has given the park service until Jan. 24 to explain how it concluded that the occupation is considered a "24-hour vigil," allowed under park rules, rather than camping, which is prohibited.

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-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: The Occupy D.C. encampment in McPherson Square in Washington. Credit: Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images


Jerry Lewis, dean of California's GOP delegation, calls it quits

U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis of CaliforniaRep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), dean of California’s GOP congressional delegation and a fixture in Golden State politics since Ronald Reagan’s governorship, on Thursday announced he would  retire when his term expires, further shaking up the state’s Washington representation.

"After months of consultation with loved ones and family, my wife Arlene and I have decided to retire from public life," he said in a statement. Lewis becomes the sixth member of the state's 53-member House delegation who will be retiring or running for another office.

His decision will set off a game of political musical chairs.

The 77-year-old Lewis has been contemplating retirement since his Inland Empire district was carved up by a redistricting plan, drawn up for the first time by a citizens commission instead of lawmakers.

Lewis has been an Inland Empire political legend, first elected to Congress in 1978 after a decade in the state Assembly.

The year he arrived on Capitol Hill, Jimmy Carter was president, a first-class postage stamp was 15 cents and Barack Obama was enrolling at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Lewis has amassed an impressive resume:  former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; onetime No. 3 in House GOP leadership; former head of his state's Republican delegation; a major Republican fundraiser -- and the man who saved former House Speaker Jim Wright from drowning. 

As a senior member (and as former chairman) of the Appropriations Committee, he has been cheered -- and vilified -- for steering millions of federal dollars to his Inland Empire districts. His legacy includes the Lewis Center for Educational Research in Apple Valley, the Jerry Lewis Swim Center in San Bernardino and the Jerry Lewis Community Center in Highland, plus road, sewer and other projects. He also has played a key role in securing money to help California recover from earthquakes and wildfires and to pay for jailing illegal immigrants.

But with Republicans determined to reduce the federal budget deficit, opportunities to bring home the bacon have diminished. Lewis also lost an effort to win back the Appropriations Committee chairmanship last year.

Lewis’ announcement came hours after Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, a Democrat, announced his candidacy for the newly drawn district that includes Lewis’ Redlands home.

Continue reading »

Health officials concerned about rats at Occupy DC sites

Occupy
Occupy DC has endured police patrols, the cold and scrutiny from California Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista).

But now, there's a potentially intractable foe: rats.

Washington, D.C., health officials have raised concerns about the proliferation of rats at the two encampments.

"As in any metro urban area, with lots of foot traffic, there’s going to be an issue of rats,’’ Washington health department spokeswoman Najma Roberts said in an interview Wednesday. "Since the Occupy movement, we have seen an increase in rats in both locations.’’

The Washington health director told the Washington Examiner that it may be necessary to remove tents from the Occupy camps, if only temporarily, to eradicate the infestation.

Pete Perry, a 41-year-old Occupy DC participant, acknowledged that rats are a problem at McPherson Square, a federal park near the White House. "There was a team of us that went through this morning cleaning as best we could,’’ he said.

But the Washington, D.C., native added, "There have always been rats in downtown DC.’’

Occupy protesters have also take over nearby Freedom Plaza.

The parks are under the control of the National Park Service. But health officials have visited the sites to distribute education materials and advise protesters on how to keep conditions sanitary.

The rat problem comes as Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, this week asked the Interior Department to explain how it concluded that the occupation is considered a "24-hour vigil,’’ allowed under park rules rather than the prohibited camping.

When Issa raised questions in December about the encampment, an Interior Department spokesman said, "The National Park Service and U.S. Park Police are firmly committed to upholding Americans' 1st Amendment rights while also enforcing our nation's laws, guarding public safety, and protecting the resources with which we are entrusted."

Dissatisfied with the Interior Department’s response, Issa this week sent another letter asking for, among other things, explanations of the legal difference between a "24-hour vigil" and "camping," and when, if ever, the park service plans to remove the protestors from the park.

An Interior Department official said in a letter to Issa this week that park service personnel have "at all times maintained a continuous law enforcement presence and constant patrols at McPherson Square in order to protect the health and safety of park visitors and demonstrators and have taken necessary action to protect public health and safety."

In response to Issa’s concerns about the effect of the encampment on the $400,000 in recent improvements to McPherson Square, paid for with economic stimulus funds, the Interior Department noted that 1st Amendment activities "often come with a measure of wear and tear on our national parks," but noted that only $8,000 was used to re-sod the park with new grass. The remainder was spent on hardscape improvements that "have not, to our knowledge, been damaged over the course of the demonstration."

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-- Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.

Photo: A sign posted in the Occupy DC encampment in McPherson Square in Washington, D.C. Credit: Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images


California congressional shake-up: Rep. Wally Herger will retire

 U.S. Rep. Wally Herger of California

Veteran U.S. Rep. Wally Herger (R-Chico) plans to retire from Congress, further shaking up California’s congressional delegation and adding to one of the most competitive House elections in the state in decades.

Herger becomes the latest in a wave of retirements in the wake of a new redistricting plan. And there could be more as Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), dean of the state’s Republican congressional delegation, mulls whether to run for reelection in a new district or to retire at age 77. The new political map was drawn for the first time by a citizens commission rather than politicians.

The 66-year-old Herger, a senior member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, plans to announce his retirement at a news conference Tuesday in Chico.

“I have been blessed with the privilege of serving my community, district, state and country for 35 years and being part of some of the most important events in our nation’s history,” according to his statement. “That privilege came with many sacrifices, the foremost of which was all the time spent away from my family and my home here in Northern California. I want to focus on my family and enjoy spending time with my grandchildren before they grow up.”

Herger was elected to the state Assembly in 1980 and to Congress in 1986.

His announcement comes days after fellow Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley declared that he would retire when his term ends. Democrats Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma and Dennis Cardoza of Atwater also are retiring and Rep. Bob Filner, another Democrat, is running for San Diego mayor.

Herger plans to endorse Republican state Sen. Doug LaMalfa to succeed him.

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-- Richard Simon in Washington, D.C.

Photo: U.S. Rep. Wally Herger (R-Chico), left, speaks with John Swope of Air Cover Integrated Solutions and the media during a November news conference. Credit: Andreas Fuhrmann / Record Searchlight/Associated Press


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

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