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Crist has a $2.4-billion change of heart

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist said "God bless Gov. Chiles" as the 2008 Legislature drew to a close last week, thankful for $2.4-billion in reserves made possible by the late Lawton Chiles.

Lawmakers used $300-million of the money to avoid painful cuts for the state's sickest and poorest this year.

But the money, the settlement from Florida's lawsuit against Big Tobacco, would never have been there if Crist had gotten his way in the mid 1990s.

Crist, then a Republican state senator from St. Petersburg, was also among the most prominent in opposing the Democratic governor's assault on tobacco companies.

Crist was among the lawmakers who unwittingly approved a law change in 1994 that made it possible for the state to sue tobacco companies seeking to recoup Medicaid expenses for people with tobacco-related illnesses.

The following year, in 1995, Crist voted with the majority to repeal the so-called third-party liability law on a 32-7 Senate vote. But Chiles vetoed it.

The next session, a veto override fell short of the two-thirds needed, securing Chiles' reputation as the governor who took on Big Tobacco.

Two other Republican senators from the Tampa Bay area, John Grant of Tampa and Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville, sided with Chiles, but Crist did not.

A March 1996 Tampa Tribune story said Crist was determined to repeal the law. "He doesn't like how the previous law slipped past them and also doesn't think businesses should be held responsible for behavior that is a personal decision," the Tribune reported.

Then in 1998, as a U.S. Senate candidate and chairman of the Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, Crist held hearings at which he demanded explanations from Chiles, then-Attorney General Bob Butterworth and others as to how the state's team of trial lawyers were chosen and why their fees were so high.

He called it a "secret, sordid tale."

Asked Thursday whether he has changed his mind about Chiles' legal assault on the tobacco industry, Crist said: "I'm very grateful to Gov. Chiles and Attorney General Bob Butterworth for the action they took. Those monies, and those funds, really gave us a bridge to the future in Florida."

He again thanked former first lady Rhea Chiles for her support this year when he pushed lawmakers to tap the reserves for health care needs. Previously the state has spent only interest from the $2.4-billion fund.

Butterworth, a Democrat, is now Crist's secretary of the Department of Children and Families, an agency dependent on some Lawton Chiles endowment money.

Butterworth said he was grateful to Crist for acknowledging his tobacco fight in last Friday's end-of-session speech.

"I'm glad the governor has had a change of heart," said Howard Forman, a former Democratic senator from Broward County whose bill was chosen to carry the secret amendment language that allowed the state to sue the tobacco companies. "As the years go by, people learn things, and I'm glad he learned that the tobacco initiative was a good thing."

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

Crist has a $2.4-billion change of heart 05/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2008 9:01am]

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