With the state in a hopeless budget situation thanks to Republican economic policies and a global recession in late 2008 Governor Charlie Crist proposed raiding the Lawton Chiles Endowment which was running a surplus. Mark Caputo and Steve Bousquet had the report at the time about the situation and a potential Chiles family lawsuit:
I had felt at the time Charlie Crist who had been one of the legislative leaders in opposing Governor Chiles lawsuit against the tobacco may simply been trying to kill the program to fit his then ideological agenda and fuel his US Senate hopes. In fairness to Crist, he also accepted stimulus dollars from the federal government AND gave President Obama the infamous hug shown across the state around this time as the budget crisis worsened.
In January 2009, I wrote this column for the Florida Voice:
The Governor’s plan is not only fiscally irresponsible but it is immoral. As someone who in the State Senate fought Governor Chiles every step of the way during his fight for Florida’s Children Crist does not have the moral authority to make this choice. In 1995, Crist voted to repeal the State’s lawsuit against Big Tobacco as a Senator. In 1996, Crist voted to override the Governor’s veto. This override attempt failed by one vote.
Then Senator Crist as Chairman of Ethics and Elections Committee used state money to undertake a painstaking investigation of the lawsuit and the attorneys who bravely represented the state against the Tobacco industry. Governor Crist may be wooing Democrats by the force of his personality in 2009, but in 1995 and 1996 he was nothing but a petty partisan politician who tried to score political points by attacking a Democratic Governor and everything he stood for. Governor Crist did not have the best interests of the state of Florida in mind in 1995 and 1996 but those of the Republican Party. Now in 2009, who is to believe he is not simply trying to dismantle something that the GOP fought against with all their vigor in the mid nineties’?
In today’s Florida Legislature where term limits have ripped out the institutional memory of these deeds, Governor Crist has been able to manipulate the Legislature into believing he’s a champion for Children. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Crist has for years eyed the Chiles Endowment for elimination. He fought against its formation in 1995 and 1996, scoring enought points with big business and the tobacco industry to jump start his statewide political career. What objective observer can really believe he’s changed his stripes now?
Much like the Republican opposition to Medicare and Social Security on the federal level, the GOP here in Florida was almost universally against Governor Lawton Chiles crusade against the Tobacco industry. With the exception of three State Senate Republicans and two in the House, Republicans voted in unison for the repeal of Governor Chiles lawsuit and a year later in the Senate to override the Governor’s veto of the repeal. Many Democrats in the Senate joined the GOP effort, which thankfully fell a single vote short of passage.
The GOP leadership used their talking points effectively in 1995 and 1996. They claimed the lawsuit would create a bad business climate and that Children’s Health was not a key concern for the state. The Republicans also complained about how the initial law passed ignoring the fact that legislative trickery and deceit had become a trait of the Legislative wing of the party. At the forefront of these talking points and the public campaign was then State Senator Charlie Crist.
As Governor Crist labored to raid the Chiles Endowment raised a troubling possibility: Could the GOP have been waiting for an excuse to gut the program altogether? Republicans in the Legislature have never been comfortable with the administration of a trust fund that came from a lawsuit that the majority of Republicans opposed vociferously. Crist himself a longtime opponent seemingly did what he did in order to show loyalty to his then political masters, before it became obvious that the trust fund was more popular than the then-Governor realized.
So after opposing the lawsuit and trying to repeal the law that permitted the lawsuit and then finally repealing the law once Jeb Bush became Governor, the GOP is now reaping the benefits of Governor Chiles courage. The fiscal mismanagement of the state by the Legislature in collusion with the Bush and Crist Administrations has been masked by the raiding of trust funds. How ironic, and perhaps this was all by design. Governor Crist helped lead Legislative efforts to fight the Governor’s lawsuit against Big Tobacco and also led the effort to stonewall Gov. Chiles appointees from being confirmed in the Senate. In fairness to Governor Bush, his agenda did not appear as transparent as that of Governor Crist.
Unless evidence can be brought to the contrary it must be assumed based on their public actions and statements that the GOP leadership always intended to see the Tobacco settlement money “wither on the vine.” By cutting taxes recklessly without complimentary spending cuts, perhaps the Legislature always intended to have a shortfall in funding that could be masked by raiding the Chiles endowment. By cutting taxes so frequently without any reasonable plan to enhance revenues from other sources, it would be foolish to not consider that the raiding of the Chiles fund was by design.
Charlie Crist the master politician who has won three consecutive statewide elections can be honest for change. He can say
“ I was there fighting it in nineties, investigating the Governor’s actions and now we have killed it, and given Corporations and Business more money instead of allowing the money to help the Children.”
Let’s be perfectly frank: once a trust fund is raided to the extent the Chiles Endowment is being raided it is essentially dead. That will be the lasting legacy of Charlie Crist’s Governorship. If he does not wish to be remembered this way and have this shameful episode hanging like a noose over him as he pursues higher office, perhaps he should explain his actions without the smokescreen of the current budget crisis.
The state of Florida under Lawton Chiles took the lead nationally in protecting children and seniors: society’s most vulnerable citizens. Now ten years after one of the great statesman in the history of Florida passed on, the leadership of our state seems to have little regard for his legacy or little conscience when undermining one of the most successful programs in our history. So perhaps it was all by design.
The day I wrote that column it was reported that Crist was backing down to some extent.
Later in the month though it surfaced that Crist was planning on raiding the funds again.
In 2010, Bud Chiles seriously considered running for Governor as he was still angry about Crist’s raiding of the fund.
As the budget crisis subsided, and Crist turned his sights definitively towards a US Senate run the debate faded into oblivion. By the time the 2010 election rolled around it was no longer an issue.