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Date of Issue: December 17, 2008

Chiles endowment raid proposed to balance state budget

Florida lawmakers have set their eyes on raiding a fund established by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles dedicated to assisting elderly people and children as a means to balance dwindling state revenues.

The Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund was created in 1999 from a portion of a massive settlement from tobacco companies, who were sued by the state for contributing to the death of smokers. At one point, the fund totaled $2.1 billion; economic woes have caused the principal to dwindle to about $1.2 billion today.

In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist received permission from the widow of Chiles, Holmes Beach resident Rhea Chiles, to borrow from the fund to help meet the state budget. That loan was approved.

State lawmakers approved a bill in September that would allow Crist to divert $364 million from the fund for other state uses. The Chiles family — sons Ed and Bud, and Rhea — sent a strong letter to Chiles and other leading members of the Florida Legislature strongly opposing the proposed raiding of the fund.

Bud Chiles told the St. Petersburg Times that talk in Tallahassee “has now shifted from repaying the endowment to raiding it more, and that the family could no longer stay quiet. ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,’” Chiles said.

The Chiles family has vowed to fight in court any depletion of the fund by state officials.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and the state's chief investment analyst, Ash Williams, have both said cashing out investments that power the interest of the fund would be shortsighted while financial markets are down.

“This looks like a case of a quick fix,” Rhea Chiles said. “It seems they want to reach over and grab it without any real effort. It’s not the right thing to do.”

She said that funding to aid elders and children “doesn’t come easily. I don’t think anyone knows how much those people in the trenches rely on that money.

“Here we are in dire straits, almost going over the waterfall, and we don’t want to take care of those who are most vulnerable in our society?”

She said that meetings with lawmakers have been ongoing and “they may be reconsidering” tapping into the endowment principal.