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Chiles clan accuses Florida of neglecting children

TALLAHASSEE — The widow and son of former Gov. Lawton Chiles are using the 10th anniversary of his death to contend that Florida is backsliding on his signature issue, its commitment to take care of children.

Former first lady Rhea Chiles and Lawton "Bud" Chiles III joined child advocates Wednesday in criticizing the state's current leaders for putting a higher emphasis on tax cuts than on human services for children.

Speaking for the Lawton Chiles Foundation, an advocacy group, the son said he will ask that his father's name be removed from the Lawton Chiles Endowment health care fund if Gov. Charlie Crist and legislators borrow more money from the fund to plug part of a $2-billion deficit in the current budget.

"Florida is now firmly ensconced in the hall of shame in terms of the welfare of children," Bud Chiles said.

Chiles cited the state's high rates of infant mortality, uninsured children and student dropouts, as well as a drop in per-pupil funding for prekindergarten and early learning programs. Billions are spent every year on what he called failures: student retention, juvenile detention and neonatal intensive care.

Gov. Chiles was a Democrat, and the state's current leadership is largely Republican.

Two critics who stood with the Chiles family also serve on a Children's Cabinet that Crist unveiled last year. They are former state Rep. Loranne Ausley of Tallahassee and David Lawrence Jr., chairman of the Children's Trust, an advocacy group, and a former publisher of the Miami Herald.

Ausley and Lawrence said the Crist Cabinet, headed by Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, has no staff and has not held a meeting in months. "I don't see it as an entity of action," Ausley said. "The governor could make it one, and I would like to see it."

"It is not at this point a genuinely effective instrument," Lawrence said. He added that Floridians overwhelmingly support tax money used to help children, citing the overwhelming approval last fall by Miami-Dade voters to renew a tax for local children's programs.

Bud Chiles quoted what he called his father's "Cracker wisdom," saying: "Take care of your seed corn. You spend the money on the front end." Rhea Chiles said that if Lawton Chiles were alive, he would be sounding the same alarm. "As Lawton used to say, 'It's a sorry frog that won't holler in his own pond,' " Mrs. Chiles said.

Their criticism comes two days before the 10th anniversary of the unexpected death of Lawton Chiles from heart disease. The Lakeland Democrat served two terms as governor and three as a U.S. senator. He was 68.

In response, Crist said that he sees no way to avoid diverting more money from the Chiles fund to patch budget holes. He also cited the recession as part of the reason the state doesn't spend more money on children's programs.

"These are tough economic times, and it's difficult to deal with these kinds of issues. But we'll see what happens," Crist said.

Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Chiles clan accuses Florida of neglecting children 12/10/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 2:03pm]
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