Even the possessors of the most cynical of imaginations could never have dreamed up the new criteria adopted yesterday by the Knesset Finance Committee, under which fiscally stronger cities will forgo a share of the state budget for religious services, instead of funneling the money to poorer towns. Only in a Knesset that has cast off all restraints and allows any sector to grab whatever it wants would the Finance Committee be capable of approving such a step, which was concocted by Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi and his predecessor in that post, Yitzhak Cohen, both pillars of Shas.

The decision will obligate local governments that balance their budgets through high taxes and efficient management to take their citizens' money and dump it into the bottomless pit of their weaker counterparts, which fail to collect taxes and suffer from mismanagement, or have to cope with poor populations and special requirements.

The weaker local governments do need assistance in all spheres, especially welfare and education. Nevertheless, council heads opposed the proposal that the stronger ones should subsidize them. Their reasonable contention was that the municipalities that manage their affairs properly should not be punished, and that the cake can be shared more equitably through the education and welfare budgets.

This problematic move in the sphere of religious services, of all the cash-strapped municipal activities, is scandalous. (And since the proponents are from Shas, it provides only for Jewish religious services.)

In 2003, the government decided on a comprehensive reform of the local religious councils, basing itself on the 1992 Tzadok Committee's recommendations, and a devastating 1996 State Comptroller report.

These reports detailed how the religious councils, instead of providing religious services to the population as a whole, had deteriorated into a playground for the religious parties and a source of cushy jobs for their hacks.

They found that corruption was rife in these councils. These unwieldy and wasteful independent councils were meant to become departments of the local authorities supplying religious services to all faiths and communities, similar to the departments of education welfare and health.

But the 2003 decision was buried deep in bureaucratic morass and when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hastily set up his government and put the state budget at Shas's disposal, it was finally doomed.

The little that the government can do now is to halt the implementation of the latest regulations. If it doesn't, they will certainly have to undergo the scrutiny of the Supreme Court.