States diverting foreclosure settlement funds

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(CBS/AP) The landmark foreclosure deal reached last month was filed in federal court Monday, and state governments are already planning how they'll use the money. Unfortunately, it won't all be going to distressed homeowners.

When it was announced, the pact was criticized for not offering enough help to homeowners. It turns out they may not even get the meager amount that was first discussed.

Each state's portion of the settlement, which in its entirety is reported to be somewhere between $25 and $26 billion, is supposed to be used for principal reductions and refinances. But with states struggling to close budget gaps and fund programs, many governments are planning to divert money from the settlement to other areas of their budgets.

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Georgia, which is among the top ten states for foreclosures, is the latest to announce it's jumping on the diversion bandwagon. Gov. Nathan Deal plans to use the money to close budget gaps in areas unrelated to housing. "The governor is open to considering the suggested uses of the [foreclosure settlement] money," Deal's spokesperson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "but we have to weigh those against the need for teachers, law enforcement officers and building transportation infrastructure."

Gov. Deal is not alone. Leaders in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin are already planning to divert some of the money to prop up their budgets.

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Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon plans to use nearly all of the state's $41 million settlement payment to help shore up the budget. Nixon told the Associated Press the money was "as we looked at it, relatively unfettered. 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 deficit is projected, some of its $69 million may be used to offset $2 billion in cuts to programs that benefit education, the elderly, disabled or poor.

Vermont plans to use $2.4 million from the settlement to help balance its budget, and Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler plans to make roughly 10 percent of his state's $62.5 million payment available for the governor and lawmakers to use as they choose.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker wants to use $26 million to plug a state budget hole because the foreclosure crisis has had a "direct impact on the economy."

Not surprisingly, the diversion of funds intended to help homeowners has ruffled a few feathers. "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," Bob Suelmann, a St. Louis homebuilder, told the Associated Press. "That money should go to something that can directly improve the housing program."

Joan Bray, a former Democratic Missouri senator and current chairwoman of the Consumers Council of Missouri, also criticizes the move: "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."

Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller -- the lead negotiator in the settlement -- believes most states will use the money for homeowner assistance-related spending. But, he told the Associated Press, "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]."

Despite Greenwood's optimism, it's possible we'll see more states diverting funds after the settlement is approved by the U.S. District Court. The settlement calls for lending reform and more oversight of lending and foreclosure processes, but those changes do little to help homeowners who have already lost everything or are severely underwater.

  • Ilyce Glink On Twitter»

    Ilyce R. Glink is an award-winning, nationally syndicated columnist, best-selling book author, and radio talk show host who also hosts "Expert Real Estate Tips," a Internet video show. She owns ThinkGlink.com as well as Think Glink Media, a privately held company that provides consulting, content and video services to companies and non-profit organizations.

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