Serving their own interests
Four months ago, when the finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, presented his economic plan, one of its important clauses was the merger of local governments. The idea itself is far from new. It dates back to a report compiled in 1998 by Aryeh Shahar, who recommended that local governments of less than 10,000 residents be reduced in size and merged with others, as they have no right to exist independently.
Four months ago, when the finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, presented his economic plan, one of its important clauses was the merger of local governments. This would have streamlined service to the citizen and saved the state coffers a great deal of money. After all, Rishon Letzion could provide the municipal services for adjacent Beit Dagan at a quarter of the cost, Holon could clean the Azor area at half the price, and Petah Tikva could organize the water and sewage services for Givat Shmuel with only a marginal addition to its current expenses.
Interior Minister Avraham Poraz supported the idea. Few interior ministers would actively oppose the interests of the heads of local governments, because in this country the accepted thing is for the cabinet minister to represent his sector against the general public (thus the industry minister supports the demands of the industrialists, the health minister adopts the demands of the physicians and the education minister acts like the adoptive parent of the teachers). This week, though, Poraz discovered that personal interests combined with a patronizing approach induced Knesset members to torpedo the merger move.
The idea itself is far from new. It dates back to a report compiled in 1998 by Aryeh Shahar, who recommended that local governments of less than 10,000 residents be reduced in size and merged with others, as they have no right to exist independently. There are 266 local governments in Israel today, 70 of which have a population of less than 5,000. The interior minister drew up a list of 150 local governments that would merge with others, but the Union of Local Authorities insisted that hearings be held, and the list was cut to 90. The pressure did not abate and Poraz finally submitted a list of only 70 local governments.
That wasn't enough. The battle continued and the clause was removed from the Economic Arrangements Law and began to be referred to various Knesset committees, where it was easy prey for the local government heads and the grassroots activists who were putting pressure on MKs to block the merger.
After all, it's no secret that local governments are the preferred places of work for Likud and Labor activists. Why else do they make such an effort to join the party's central committee? In every local government that was a candidate for merger, there are activists who would lose their jobs, not to mention the heads of the local governments, who would lose their positions and their political clout. All of these individuals have a say in the central committees - which ultimately decide who will become a Knesset member and who will not.
The goal of the Likud activists was to prevent the enactment of the law before the Knesset rises for its summer recess at the end of next week (a recess which, by the way, the MKs refuse to shorten). The recess is over at the end of October, a few days before the elections to the local governments, so that non-enactment of the law now will cause a postponement of five years in the merger process - in short, the legislation will be buried.
Netanyahu declared that he would not agree to cancel the merger and that he intends "to raise the subject for a vote next week in the Knesset," but for some reason (he, too, will stand for election one day) he did nothing to promote the legislation until now, and now it's too late. After all, the chairman of the Knesset's Finance Committee, MK Abraham Hirchson (Likud), lost no time in declaring that even if the subject were to be referred to him next Monday, he would not be able to complete dealing with it by Thursday, when the Knesset rises. "We need time for a serious discussion," he said.
That, of course, will not stop Hirchson and the other populist MKs from shedding a tear over the bitter fate of the single mothers whose budget was slashed because of the economic crisis. These people never draw the connection between their refusal to cut into their personal interests and the shortage of budgets for the really important subjects.
Next week MKs will have an opportunity to salvage something of their self-respect. Poraz will submit to the Knesset his proposal to reduce by 270 the number of deputy heads of local councils, who today number about 500. That would save the taxpayer NIS 150 million a year without infringing in the least on the service the citizen gets. Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit, having yielded to Uzi Cohen, the representative of the deputy council heads, suggests that only 200 of the posts be scrapped. Maybe this time the MKs will surprise us all and vote for Poraz's proposal. After all, they are there to improve our lives, not to arrange jobs for their buddies.