House budget chair vows to save First Steps

Thursday, February 3, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The House budget chairman says he will try to save a program, targeted for elimination by Gov. Matt Blunt, that helps thousands of Missouri infants and preschoolers with disabilities.

Rep. Brad Lager, R-Maryville, said Wednesday that he is confident his House Budget Committee will include funding for the First Steps program, despite Blunt's recommendation.

The state budget for the 2005 fiscal year includes $27.6 million for First Steps, a special education program for children from birth to age 3 with developmental or physical disabilities, such as Down syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and hearing or vision problems.

The program offers children services such as speech therapy, physical therapy and sign-language instruction -- often at the family's home. A family's income plays no role in eligibility for the services, which are offered by public and private providers, said Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

More than 8,000 Missouri children participated in First Steps in the 2004 fiscal year. But Blunt said it's necessary to eliminate the program to save money.

"It's a part of a number of difficult decisions that have to be made to balance the budget without increasing the tax burden on Missouri families," Blunt said Wednesday in an interview.

Lager said First Steps is worth saving because it helps children with disabilities receive the extra help they need to be ready for school.

"It's a program that I believe exemplifies what the vast majority of the members of this body believe, and that is: Early education in preschools and those early years provide great benefits that you can't substitute at any other point," he said in an interview Wednesday.

At a news conference Tuesday, Lager said the program "has a very high probability of getting put back in the budget."

Blunt said children in low-income families could still qualify through Medicaid for many of the same services they receive through First Steps. Others could get the services through private health insurance, he said.


On the Net:

First Steps: http://www.dese.state.mo.us/divspeced/Fi...

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