JEFFERSON CITY — House lawmakers overwhelmingly supported a measure Wednesday to set aside $1 million for funding the First Steps program from interest earned on state investments.
The 157-1 vote for the proposal highlighted a commitment from House Republicans and Democrats to save the program, which serves developmentally disabled children up to age 3.
Gov. Matt Blunt’s budget proposed a $23 million cut to the program, which essentially would eliminate it. But Blunt has said he wants to make sure children receiving First Steps assistance continue to do so — either through the state or private insurers.
Wednesday’s show of support for the First Steps program came during debate on an unrelated bill.
House Budget Committee Chairman Brad Lager proposed an amendment that would have allowed 0.1 percent of the interest earned on state investments — estimated at $1 million — to fund the state treasurer’s office, which invests state money. That would have freed up $1 million in state general revenues to go toward other programs, said Lager, R-Maryville.
But Rep. Rick Johnson amended Lager’s proposal to instead direct the same amount of interest revenues to the First Steps program.
“I have found $1 million that the governor could put in his budget, that he can use, so that this program does not have to be entirely eliminated,” said Johnson, D-High Ridge.
The move angered Lager, who accused Johnson of playing politics with the First Steps program by attaching the issue to an unrelated piece of legislation.
“I believe what we’re really trying to do here is play games,” Lager said. “I find it very disappointing.”
Nonetheless, he called on his fellow Republicans to support Johnson’s proposal, and it passed resoundingly.
“I believe that we are all committed to taking care of the children of this state, and we are committed to funding First Steps,” Lager said.
The First Steps amendment was tacked onto a bill that would increase the state’s ability to loan money to banks at below-market interest rates. That legislation won first-round approval from the House.
The bill would double the amount of money that can be invested in the Missouri First Linked Deposit Program from $360 million to $720 million, and extend its expiration from 2007 to 2015.
The legislation also gives the state treasurer more flexibility to provide loans when interest rates are extremely low, as they have been in recent years. The state currently discounts the interest rate on its investments by up to 3 percentage points below the market rate, as long as the interest paid to the state does not fall below 2 percent. The legislation allows the treasurer to invest money at a rate of up to 40 percent below the market rate when rates are lower than 5 percent, as long as the state’s rate does not fall below 1 percent.
The bill also expands the list of eligible borrowers in the program to include “value added” agriculture, such as ethanol or meat processing plants.
The legislation needs another House vote to move to the Senate, which already has passed its own version of the bill.