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Date of Issue: January 14, 2009

Repayment of Chiles endowment fund promised by state officials

A proposed financial raid on a state endowment fund to benefit seniors and children may still take place, but now under the promise that the money taken will be returned as soon as federal stimulus funds are received in Florida.

The Sunshine State is looking at a more than $1 billion budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year. State organizations have been asked to pare budgets by Gov. Charlie Crist. And as a means to help balance the budget, he has suggested taking $600 million from the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund.

Crist said last week he would replace the borrowed money with an expected, unknown amount of federal money earmarked as an economic stimulus.

The endowment fund was created with some of the $11.3 billion the state received as a settlement from tobacco companies several years ago. It is used to provide programs and services for children and seniors and was created by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1995. Chiles wife Rhea has a home on Anna Maria Island.

Attorney Steve Yerrid of Tampa, one of the lawyers who worked to reach the tobacco settlement, said Crist told him the first federal money that flowed to Florida would be used to pay back the endowment loan.

Bud Chiles and Ed Chiles, sons of the late Florida governor and U.S. Senator, appeared skeptical about the so-called endowment raid.

The financial taking of the $1.1 billion endowment fund takes different forms depending on which branch of state government is viewed.

Crist is proposing $600 million.

The Florida Senate is proposing $700 million.

The Florida House wants $400 million with a caveat to borrow another $600 million if needed.

Some form of compromise is expected during the legislative session later this year.

All agree that nothing will be enacted until June.

The Chiles family wants specific language in any bill that explicitly calls for repayment of any funds borrowed from the endowment. 

Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, whose district includes western Manatee County, including Anna Maria Island and Cortez, has said it is hoped the federal funds become available prior to June 1, making any borrowing from the endowment moot.

Rhea Chiles, the governor’s widow, gave Crist her approval to take $350 million from the Chiles fund to help pay for health care programs during another budget crunch last year. She has said she wants that money reimbursed before any further raids take place.

Yerrid and some members of the legal team that fought to get the $11.3 billion have said lawsuits would ensue if the fund is further depleted.