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Raiding your funeral fund

If you have already paid for your funeral and can still read this, may your remaining days be long and happy. But are you sure you'll get what you paid for?

Floridians, for now, can reasonably say yes. That's because of the state's Pre-need Funeral Contract Consumer Protection Trust Fund. For each contract, the law requires the person selling it to pay up to $10 into the fund. If a funeral provider defaults on a contract, the state uses the money to pay for the funeral or refund the money. Grieving relatives don't have to go to court. In the last fiscal year alone, the fund paid some $217,000 to settle claims.

But it seems that the trust fund is almost too solvent for its own good. The Legislature raided it for $250,000 last year to help plug holes in the general revenue budget. Now, Gov. Jeb Bush wants virtually all that's left, some $5.3-million. It's unclear how, or even whether, the state would continue to guarantee pre-need funerals after that.

It's one of many trust funds the governor wants to loot rather than admit to raising taxes. Another of his subterfuges would slap a 2 percent "surcharge," as he puts it, on commercial bail bond premiums. There's no word on whether a defendant who is acquitted would get the money back.

The Senate takes a dim view of most of this, which is good news. But even the Senate has agreed with Bush to harvest some $42.7-million in the inmate welfare trust fund, shut down the fund and direct all future earnings to general revenue.

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, insists the Legislature will still spend the money on inmate welfare, principally education, although not necessarily as the Department of Corrections might prefer. That promise, however, cannot bind even this Legislature, let alone the next one.

Meanwhile, it would make the fund just another hidden tax, with the taxpayers being primarily the inmates and their families.

Last year, the fund netted $35.2-million in profits from vending machines and nearly $19-million in commissions from the overpriced long-distance collect-call services that have contracts with the state prisons. Regardless of what crimes the inmates have committed, this kickback scheme is an unfair burden on family members who want to stay in touch with them. If the state isn't going to guarantee that the profits be spent for the benefit of inmates, the toll charges should be reduced.

As for the pre-need funeral fund, the law already stipulates that when the balance is more than $1-million the state should consider lowering the per-contract charge. It says nothing about turning the charge into a disguised tax on funerals.