JEFERSON CITY — The money legally is theirs to spend as they choose.
But Gov. Jay Nixon is delivering a message to Missouri's colleges and universities that he expects them to use $40 million in next year's budget to expand the number of classroom slots available for health care professionals.
While many universities are pledging to implement the health care plan, some schools have said they instead may spend the extra state money to fix buildings or plug budget holes.
At issue is what Nixon dubs "Caring for Missourians" and what his predecessor, Gov. Matt Blunt, called "Preparing to Care."
As proposed, each public university and community college would get a share of the $40 million to hire instructors and purchase equipment needed to increase the numbers of students they can accommodate in high-demand health care fields.
The proposed funding ranges from $135,000 for Crowder Community College to teach an additional eight registered nurses to $24 million for the four-campus University of Missouri system to produce an additional 209 medical doctors, pharmacists, therapists, dentists,optometrists, nurses and other health care professionals.
The total number of additional health care graduates under the plan: 916.
When the legislature adjourned May 15, Nixon counted the health education plan among his successes.
But technically, the legislature did not provide any money for the Caring for Missourians program.
The budget passed by lawmakers includes $33.5 million of federal economic stimulus funds divided among Missouri's 10 universities and Linn State Technical College "for any one-time purpose."
Legislators intentionally chose to give universities flexibility over the money instead of designating it for the Caring for Missourians initiative.
"If they wanted to use the money to begin the process of this Caring for Missourians plan, they could use it for that," said House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood. "Or if they had more pressing needs — maintenance or repair needs — it could be used for that as well."
The budget also includes $13 million in federal stimulus funds for community colleges — twice what they would have gotten under Caring for Missourians — but the wording specifically designates it "for maintenance, repairs, replacements and improvements."
Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said Friday that the governor expects community colleges to use half that maintenance money to free up other funds, which then could be spent on the Caring for Missourians program.
Hiring additional staff at colleges and universities accounted for 63 percent of the planned expenses under the original Caring for Missourians proposal. Teachers salaries generally are an ongoing expense.
But the legislature put a wrinkle in the plan when it designated the money for one-time purposes. If schools use the money for Caring for Missourians, Icet stressed, "they ought not come back to the legislature and expect us to fund the program in the 2011."
The Associated Press surveyed all of Missouri's public universities after passage of the budget. A majority said they still intend to carry out the spirit of the Caring for Missourians proposal, though perhaps differently than they first planned.
Instead of hiring tenure-track faculty, the campuses in the UM System may hire temporary instructors and direct more money to classroom and lab renovations in health care fields, said Kristofer Hagglund, associate dean of health policy at MU.
At Missouri State University, "our intent is to start implementing Caring for Missourians," even if it means searching for private funding to continue the plan once the state funding runs out, said university Chief of Staff Paul Kincaid.
But some institutions are considering using the money for other things.
The $513,870 for Harris-Stowe State University could help fill a roughly $250,000 hole in next year's budget, said Constance Gully, vice president for business and financial affairs.
Linn State Technical College intends to use its $154,151 to chip away at a $1.8 million backlog of maintenance and repairs or to help with about $1.5 million in equipment purchases, said John Nilges, vice president for administration and finance.
Missouri Western State University also is considering putting its $847,724 toward deferred maintenance.
"Since it is specified as one-time money, I think they would be reluctant to use that to expand faculty or do the kinds of things we might have to do under Caring for Missourians," said Kent Heier, Missouri Western's assistant director of public relations and marketing.
Nixon is using his gubernatorial powers to try to overcome that reluctance.
He met Friday at the Capitol with several university and college leaders to express his desire that the money — no matter the vague budget language — be spent on the Caring for Missourians program. Those not at the meeting will be hearing from the governor's office in coming days, Cardetti said.
"We would expect that almost everyone will sign on to this program," Cardetti said.