JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The ink wasn't even dry on a settlement with the nation's top mortgage lenders when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon laid claim to a chunk of the money to avert a huge budget cut for public colleges and universities.
He's not the only politician eyeing the cash for purposes that have nothing to do with foreclosure. Like a pot of gold in a barren field, the $25 billion deal offers a tempting and timely source of funding for state governments with multimillion-dollar budget gaps.
Although most of the money goes directly to homeowners affected by the mortgage crisis, the settlement announced this month by attorneys general in 49 states includes nearly $2.7 billion for state governments to spend as they wish.
Some are pledging to use it as relief for struggling homeowners or to help related initiatives, such as a Michigan plan to assist children left homeless by foreclosures. But several states are already planning to divert at least some of the money to prop up their budgets, and more will be wrestling with those decisions in the coming weeks.
For some consumer advocates, the diversion is reminiscent of the 1998 tobacco settlement in which states spent billions on projects that had nothing to do with curbing smoking.
"We shouldn't be in the position of taking money that is intended to help consumers and their mortgage tribulations and putting that to another purpose," said former Missouri state Sen. Joan Bray, a Democrat who's now chairwoman of the Consumers Council of Missouri.
States that use the onetime payout for immediate expenses may also face the question of what to do next year when the money is used up. But officials in struggling states say they must deal with the most immediate problems first.
A federal judge in Washington could approve the final settlement by the end of February. Once that happens, money could begin flowing to states within a couple of weeks, arriving just as lawmakers are crafting budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.
Republican legislative leaders in Missouri have already embraced the Democratic governor's plan to use nearly all of the state's $41 million settlement payment to help shore up the budget. The mortgage money allowed Nixon to reduce his proposed funding cut for public colleges and universities from 12.5 percent to 7.8 percent -- potentially easing student tuition increases.
The money was "as we looked at it, relatively unfettered," Nixon said. "Clearly the economy was affected all across the country by foreclosure challenges, and I think it is apt and appropriate to use those dollars to help restore some of the challenging cuts that I was forced to make."
In Pennsylvania, where a fourth straight budget deficit is projected, Democrats are pressing the Republican-run attorney general's office to use some of its $69 million payment to offset $2 billion in cuts to programs that benefit education, the elderly, disabled or poor.
"The governor's budget has so many cuts to so many valuable programs, if the attorney general's office has $69 million, why not use that to offset these cuts to essential programs?" said state Rep. Joe Markosek, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
Vermont plans to use $2.4 million from the settlement to help balance its budget. Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler said about 10 percent of his state's $62.5 million payment will be made available for the governor and lawmakers to spend as they choose.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker wants to use $26 million to plug a state budget hole because the foreclosure crisis had a "direct impact on the economy." But the Republican governor's plan has ruffled some Democrats, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
St. Louis homebuilder Bob Suelmann, who has a background in real estate and finance, said it's "ridiculous" for states to divert mortgage settlement payments to other purposes.
"It's like taking tax money that was supposed to go to road improvements, and then suddenly the bridges are falling down and you don't know what to do about it," Suelmann said. "That money should go to something that can directly improve the situation with the housing program."
When the tobacco settlement was reached, states initially promised to beef up public health with the $206 billion paid out over several decades. Instead, much of the money went to general government operations. State funding for tobacco-prevention programs has now fallen to its lowest level since 1999, according to recent estimates.
"The lesson is advocates have to be vigilant," said Marie Cocco, a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Most states will probably use the money for mortgage-assistance hotlines, mediation between borrowers and lenders, legal aid and financial counseling, said Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who was the lead negotiator on the settlement.
But, he added, officials "have to acknowledge that there has been damage done to states and their budgets and their services because of this mortgage crisis.... So states will have some flexibility in how they spend" the money.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said that she will oppose any efforts to use the money to prop up the state's shaky budget.
California, which was one of the hardest hit states by the mortgage crisis, will receive the largest payment -- about $430 million at a time when the state is facing a $9.2 billion deficit. A spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown said no decision has been made on how to spend the money.
Some consumer advocates say they will be watching closely to see where the payments are spent.
"As insufficient as it is," said Kathleen Day, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending, "this money was intended to go directly to help struggling homeowners."
Associated Press writers Chris Blank in Jefferson City; Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa.; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis.; David Gram in Montpelier, Vt.; Brian Witte in Annapolis, Md.; Beth Duff-Brown in San Francisco; Chet Brokaw in Pierre, S.D.; Tim Martin in Lansing, Mich.; Christopher Wills in Springfield, Ill.; Randall Chase in Dover, Del.; Norma Love in Concord, N.H.; Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Wash.; and Derek Kravitz in Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. Active hyperlinks have been inserted by AOL.
Median List Price: $81,700
Total Listings: 22,370
Median Age of Inventory: 70 days
Home Price: $290,000
Sq. Ft.: 2,800
Speaking volumes to the affordability of Detroit housing, not one of Realtor.com's Detroit listings is priced above $1 million.
This $290,000 home is high-end as far as the city's market goes. The apartment, which features waterfront views, dates back to Detroit's heyday when the American automobile industry was firing on all cylinders.
Median List Price: $320,444
Total Listings: 26,858
Median Age of Inventory: 83 days
Home Price: $10.95 million
Sq. Ft.: 13,699
Los Angeles' median home price may tower over the national median (which is below $200,000); but in coming in at No. 3 on our list, that apparently hasn't stopped prospective buyers from scouring the city's listings.
This spanking-new, palatial mansion features floor-to-ceiling windows that display the home's jaw-dropping panoramas for all they're worth.
Median List Price: $221,995
Total Listings: 21,693
Median Age of Inventory: 124 days
Home Price: $4,898,100
Sq. Ft.: N/A
Philadelphia's median home price hovers above the national median by a considerable margin. The city has one of the highest average inventory ages on our list. That may induce more sellers to cut their prices.
Median List Price: $169,500
Total Listings: 17,699
Median Age of Inventory: 69 days
Home Price: $2.75 million
Sq. Ft.: 6,917
Phoenix-Mesa, bringing cheaper than average homes to the home-buying table, is fifth on our list. Perhaps luring flocks of bargain hunters, the area's homes are selling significantly faster than in most cities.
This contemporary has a well-landscaped courtyard and guesthouse. The listing description plays up the home's privacy, which makes the home "feel miles away."
Median List Price: $142,000
Total Listings: 18,827
Median Age of Inventory: 110 days
Home Price: $3,999,999
Sq. Ft.: 6,763
Florida is one of the states hit hardest by the the housing bust with rampant foreclosures driving down home prices all around the state. So it's no surprise that buyers have the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area in their crosshairs.
This magnificent waterfront manse sits on some prime Tampa real estate. Price per square foot? $591. While that may strike you as exorbitant, keep in mind, pre-meltdown, this place's value surely dwarfed its current price tag.
Median List Price: $189,900
Total Listings: 16,291
Median Age of Inventory: 94 days
Home Price: $6.495 million
Sq. Ft.: 5,025
Dallas' median home price hovers around the national median, rendering it a fairly affordable city to your average American.
This home, however, is not affordable to your average American -- but, hey, it's fun to look at. The contemporary sits on a one-acre lot that stares out at the Dallas skyline. Recently, the home's price was slashed to $6.49 million.
Median List Price: $121,000
Total Listings: 21,665
Median Age of Inventory: 105 days
Home Price: $8 million
Sq. Ft.: 13,489
Las Vegas took one of the biggest shellackings from the bursting of the real estate bubble, with its median home price plunging by more than 60 percent. It would seem that buyers are keen on taking advantage of the rock-bottom prices.
This massive luxury home almost certainly used to be worth well over $10 million. Now the 13,489-square-foot behemoth is running for $8 million.