The state budget for 2004 was passed last night, a week after the budgetary year began. The Knesset approved the NIS 255.36 billion budget on its second and third readings by a vote of 58 in favor and 46 against.
Two Likud MKs - Marina Solodkin and David Levy - boycotted the vote in protest against the budgetary cuts.
The plenum also passed the Economic Arrangements Law and the Law for Raising the Pension Age.
The retirement age for women will be raised gradually to 64, contrary to last week's decision by the Knesset Finance Committee. The Knesset panel voted last week to raise the retirement age for women to 62 at this stage, and then to have a public committee discuss over a period of three years whether it should be raised to 64.
It appears that members of the Finance Committee approved the bill without all of them being aware of its implications. MKs who last night voted in favor said later they had not realized that there would be an automatic leap to 64 and that they had thought the issue would come before a committee for discussion.
The version approved yesterday indeed talks of appointing a public committee whose recommendations must be brought before the Finance Committee; however, clause 6 of the law includes a table based on which the pension age is to be raised. According to this table, the pension age for women will automatically be raised to 64 in the year 2017, while that of men will be raised to 67 in 2009.
According to sources at the treasury, the legislation passed yesterday states that the public committee's recommendations will come before the Finance Committee for approval only if they propose changing the age from 64.
Finance Committee chairman Abraham Hirchson (Likud) told Haaretz last night that his understanding was that only the public committee would be empowered to change the age beyond 62. Committee members MKs Haim Katz (Likud) and Ehud Ratzabi (Shinui) said that this had been their understanding too. Labor lawmaker Avraham Shochat said that it was clear from the text that the age would automatically go up to 64, but he believed many MKs were not aware of this.
All the opposition's motions on the budget, including one calling for a long school day, were defeated yesterday by the coalition. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had said earlier he would support a long school day, also voted against the opposition proposal.
The coalition also turned down the opposition's proposal to increase the budget of the Abarbanel psychiatric hospital.
Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who expressed satisfaction at the passing of the budget, said: "Our mission is to increase growth in the economy... We did not break open the budgetary framework and we did not change our deficit target. Since March 2003, we have cut the budget by NIS 19.5 billion."
Netanyahu added that if revenues were better than predicted, the government would reduce taxes for the lower income groups.
The vote on the budget was preceded by hundreds of votes on individual paragraphs, some of them by a show of hands, others electronically and others by roll call. Some of the ministers and MKs dozed during the voting.
Knesset Speaker MK Reuven Rivlin announced at the start of the Knesset session that he would go slowly with the votes so that everyone would be able to follow, but it soon turned out that many were confused. Sharon, his deputy Ehud Olmert, and Netnayahu all voted in favor of an opposition motion opposing the raising of the pension age, but their surprise vote did not help the motion to pass.
A commotion broke out during the afternoon session when Shas MK Meshulam Nahari discovered that the treasury had not submitted to the plenum an addendum to the agreement signed with the National Religious Party for the transfer of NIS 45 million to causes supported by that party. The reactions in the house were stormy. Labor MK Ophir Pines declared that Netanyahu had lied to the Knesset by not transfering this document. Even before it transpired that the appendix had not been revealed, Pines had asked Netanyahu to give the legislature details about the agreement with the NRP.
Netanyahu replied: "We do not yet know where these NIS 45 million will go. Therefore, it is not possible to give details. When we have an agreement, it will be brought before the Finance Committee and will be completely transparent."
The voting was meanwhile stopped and urgent consultations were then held in the speaker's office, where it was agreed that the plenary debate would resume and voting would continue. It was also agreed that Netanyahu would send a letter to the plenum, stating that the missing addendum had not been an agreement but rather a list of demands on the part of the NRP.