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More than a month ago, Minister of Science, Culture and Sport Matan Vilnai surprised the Knesset Finance Committee when he issued an incredibly frank declaration.

His ministry, Vilnai informed the committee members, had distributed allocations without applying any criteria in the distribution of those subsidies. The Budget Principles Law, which, according to the High Court of Justice, has the same status as each of Israel's basic laws, forbids the distribution of subsidies if that distribution is not governed by egalitarian criteria. Vilnai admitted that his ministry regularly distributed each year more than NIS 300 million in apparently flagrant disregard of the law.

The ministry's legal counselor, Edna Harel, hurriedly tried to set the record straight, arguing that the ministry does have certain criteria and that it is in the process of amending them. Nevertheless, most of the committee members realized that it was the minister, and not Harel, who was painting an accurate picture.

Regarding proper procedures for the distribution of ministry allocations, it appears that the finger of blame cannot be aimed solely at ultra-Orthodox cultural institutions, whose improper fiscal processes are notorious. The ministry of science, culture and sport regrettably has an "honored" place in a subculture that is characterized by improper administrative procedures and by contempt for High Court rulings. The ministry gives the impression that it considers itself above the law - specifically, the Budget Principles Law.

The cultural budget of the ministry for 2000 was some NIS 430 million, of which it granted subsidies totaling approximately NIS 300 million. This year, because of the Cinema Law, its budget has grown to NIS 473 million, of which it will distribute some NIS 340 million in subsidies in such fields as theater (NIS 86.5 million), music (NIS 40.5 million), dance (NIS 23 million), public libraries (NIS 13 million), and so forth.

Four years ago, the High Court ruled that the criteria used by the ministry for the distribution of allocations in 12 separate categories are not substantive and cannot even be considered criteria. The High Court described these "criteria" as overly generalized and as tools that gave the ministry almost total freedom to exercise its judgment as it saw fit.

Furthermore, the High Court determined that the so-called criteria were nothing but lip service to the principle of egalitarianism. Although the specific petition to the High Court concerned only theater, the High Court emphasized that its ruling applied "as well to other types of cultural and artistic institutions."

It seems logical to assume that, in the wake of such candid statements, every government ministry would have changed its criteria within a few months of the above ruling. However, despite the fact that so much time has elapsed since the ruling, only in one area - cinema - were proper criteria established this year. These criteria were published as a separate law. In 20 additional areas, the culture ministry is continuing to distribute subsidies for cultural activities on the basis of illegal criteria.

In two areas, theater and dance, criteria have been defined in draft form and will be given a finalized format in the near future. In the area of museums, the ministry this year distributed funds on the basis of an informal draft text of criteria that has no legal status. The use of this draft text has, however, revolutionized the procedure of allocating subsidies to museums and has emphasized how much inequality characterized the previous allocations. Another 17 areas have not yet reached the regulating stage and ministry officials have made it clear that it is doubtful whether they will be regulated in the next few years to come.

Many jurists and senior attorneys argue that improper subsidy distribution is not the ministry's only violation of the Budget Principles Law. Although it may be hard to believe, the entire state budget for cultural matters for 2001 - totaling some NIS 473 million - appears on just one line in the state budget book.

Under this line (number 193103), the state budget book for 2001 conceals no less than 44 "regulations" (a "regulation" is the highest level of detail given to a budget item). Of these regulations, 21 concern subsidies that the ministry distributes to public institutions. From the ministry's standpoint, the advantage of regulations is obvious: They are not part of the state budget book and transfers between them do not require the Knesset's approval.

In an article published three years ago by attorney Amnon de Hartoch, the expert on allocations in the office of the Attorney General, in the journal Mishpatim (in Hebrew, vol. 29, 5758/1997-98), he categorically states that the manner in which the cultural budget appears in the state budget is a violation of the Budget Principles Law. According to section 3a of that law, "government spending intended to support public institutions will establish for each item the total budget for every type of public institution."

De Hartoch explains that the intention is that the government must determine in the state budget book a separate sum - that is, a separate budget line - for each subsidy.

The situation as it exists today is clearly unacceptable because it prevents any public debate of the order of priorities in the cultural arena. A senior attorney, Yaakov Weinroth, has said that the lack of detail given to the cultural budget in the state budget book "would never stand up to the scrutiny of the High Court for even five minutes; the petition would be a very simple matter."

The ministries of science, culture and sport and finance have their own separate, highly formalistic interpretation of the Budget Principles Law. However, the very attempt to justify a situation in which the priorities of the cultural budget are concealed raises some serious questions.

Shinui MK Yosef Paritzky has observed that, according to the logic of the ministry of science, culture and sport, it is unclear why there is any need for a state budget book in the first place. "All that is really needed," he concludes, "is one line for each ministry."