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Bush proposes to honor Chiles

$2-billion from tobacco settlements would aid children and seniors.

By PETER WALLSTEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 1999


TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush wants to put a portion of Florida's $13-billion tobacco settlement into a special endowment to honor the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, a former political adversary who led the charge against the tobacco industry.

The endowment would total more than $2-billion collected over four years. The investmentincome would be spent exclusively on programs for children and seniors, Bush said Wednesday.

"I can't think of a better way to honor Gov. Chiles' legacy," said Bush, a Republican whose campaign for governor was backed generously by business groups that fought Florida's efforts to sue tobacco companies.

Chiles, a Democrat who defeated Bush in 1994, died suddenly last December just weeks before his term was to end. He led the way in Florida's decision to sue cigarette manufacturers to recover costs of treating smoking-related illnesses and considered the settlement one of his proudest moments.

Even as Bush was deciding where to spend the tobacco settlement, he left the door open Wednesday to putting the state's money back into tobacco stocks. Florida divested its tobacco holdings when it sued because of questions about how the litigation would affect their value.

Now that similar suits across the country are being settled, Bush said, tobacco stocks could become wise investments again.

Bush also announced Wednesday he would push this year to increase spending on certain social services programs for children and seniors.

With Republican leaders calling for as much as $1-billion in tax cuts, Bush's announcement could be timed to stave off criticism that tax breaks would come at the expense of social services programs.

Bush's announcements -- the first glimpse of what he will propose in his first budget as governor -- came as a surprise to some Democrats, who have wondered aloud about Bush's commitment to social services. Senate Democrats recently said the tobacco money should be isolated for children's programs.

"On the surface it looks like they're doing the right thing," said Senate Democratic Leader Buddy Dyer. "We will have the opportunity to dig below the surface. If it is as it appears today, we would be supportive."

Said state Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach: "This is his week to sound like a Democrat."

Bush was joined Wednesday by his fellow Republican leaders, Senate President Toni Jennings and House Speaker John Thrasher. While the two powerful lawmakers endorsed the Chiles endowment, which needs legislative approval, they stopped short of advocating Bush's plans to increase social services spending this year.

"The Senate will give careful consideration to the governor's specific proposals, as we always do," Jennings said.

Specifically, Bush said Wednesday his budget will:

Increase spending on child welfare programs by nearly one-fourth. An additional $101.3-million would include more money for foster care, shelters and group homes, plus funding for more than 300 new workers in the state's child protection agency. Money also will go toward the Healthy Families program.

Eliminate the waiting list for KidCare, Chiles' pet project that extended health insurance to thousands of children of poor families. Bush wants to cover an additional 95,114 children.

Eliminate the waiting list for the Community Care for the Elderly program by putting another $14.6-million into social services for seniors.

Continue Chiles' anti-tobacco advertising campaign aimed at convincing young people that smoking isn't cool.

The Chiles endowment would get $1.1-billion this year and would get more funds for the next three years. The principal money would not be touched, but the state would use the interest to enhance programs. Aside from saying the money would be spent on child health and welfare programs and home-care programs for seniors, Bush did not provide specifics on where the money would go.

Bush said he would push for a law requiring that all future money from the tobacco settlement be spent on children's health, child welfare and seniors.

"Stories are now starting to emerge about other states that have gotten tobacco settlement dollars now spending it on a wide array of subjects that go way beyond children's health issues or tobacco," Bush said. "We want to make sure that doesn't happen in Florida."

News of the Chiles endowment was greeted with appreciation by the late governor's widow.

"This is a great day for the people of the state of Florida," Rhea Chiles said in a written statement faxed to news agencies by Chiles' former communications director, Ron Sachs. "Today, Governor Bush has acted on his concern for our children and our elderly. This endowment will ensure that the necessary services will be provided for their well-being -- which means a brighter future for us all."

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