Chiles family: Hands off the fund, Charlie
In stark and angry terms, the family of former Gov. Lawton Chiles threatened to sue Gov. Charlie Crist and legislative leaders if they try to balance the budget by raiding the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund for poor kids and senior citizens.
"Depleting the Endowment that invests in the present and future success of our children is an affront to all Floridians,'' Bud Chiles, son of the former Democratic governor, wrote in a Friday letter (read the contents here). "It is unconscionable that the state is willing to put children's lives and health on the line by destroying one of the only reliable funding sources available,'' Chiles continued.
The letter was addressed to Crist, House Speaker Ray Sansom and Senate President Jeff Atwater, who are all Republicans. ''We have received Mr. Chiles III's letter regarding the Lawton Chiles Endowment and the Governor appreciates his thoughts,'' Crist's office said in a statement. ``Governor Crist is currently reviewing all options to balance Florida's budget during these challenging economic times.''
Just as startling was this letter that Chiles' widow, Rhea Chiles, sent Crist in June in which she snubbed Crist's request to have dinner at the Governor's Mansion. Mrs. Chiles cited the "intolerable prospect" of using Chiles fund money to spackle budget holes while also cutting health and human services.
Sent just one week shy of the 10th anniversary of Chiles' death, the letter from his son adds an unexpectedly personal and political edge to Florida's budget woes. Right now, the budget has a $2.1-billion hole and - to avoid raising taxes - legislators are looking at sweeping dwindling reserves from savings accounts and trust funds, including the Chiles Endowment.
"They need to show leadership and think of other revenue sources, not just raiding savings,'' Bud Chiles told the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau. He said he favors an increase in the cigarette tax to a $1 a pack. Chiles said that, if Crist and the Legislature take anymore cash from the endowment, the family will ask that Lawton Chiles name be removed.
"This is not what my father stood for,'' Chiles said. The endowment was established by Gov. Chiles' successor, Jeb Bush, who diverted about 10 percent of a $17-billion settlement with tobacco companies that Chiles had pushed through.
Operating as an annuity, the endowment was designed to help poor kids and senior citizens with money derived from interest earned from investments.
This spring, Crist personally called Chiles' widow, Rhea Chiles, to ask her if she would support an effort to allow him and the Legislature to borrow up to half the $2.1-billion value of the endowment in the event of a budget shortfall.
The catch: The state would pay the money back.
Mrs. Chiles agreed to support the loan. But she was still concerned.
She then rebuffed a Crist request this June to honor her at the governor's mansion, saying in a June 11 letter to Crist that he presented an "intolerable prospect'' of cutting more health and human services. "When, in two years, this loan is fully repaid to the Fund, I will be greatly relieved and most happy to celebrate with you,'' Rhea Chiles wrote Crist.
Since then, the stock market tanked and the value of the fund has sunk. The state's chief investment analyst, Ash Williams, and state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink (the only Democrat on the state Cabinet) have said that the state would be shortsighted if it cashed out its investments at the bottom of the market. Bud Chiles said that talk in Tallahassee has now shifted from repaying the endowment to raiding it more. And the family could no longer stay quiet.
"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,'' Chiles said. "That's the reason for the tone of this letter. We're trying to send a message: We're real serious.''