MKs Raise a Ruckus as Finance Minstry Seeks Hefty $4.8 Billion in Budget Changes

Giant amendments come less than a month after Knesset approved 2015 budget.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon outside the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Nov. 22, 2015.
Emil Salman

The treasury asked the Knesset Finance Committee on Tuesday to approve transferring some 18.5 billion shekels (about $4.8 billion) of unspent funds from the 2014 budget to the 2015 budget, as well as another 3.5 billion shekels in spending changes.

But lawmakers protested the hasty request, demanded more transparency and stopped voting on the changes after approving just four items totaling 1.7 billion shekels of the amount. Before that, the committee approved new directives aimed at making the process more transparent.

“I’ve have never seen such a crude exercise – three weeks after the budget was approved, they are making requests for changes without transparency of any kind,” complained Mickey Levy (Yesh Atid). “Some of the requests are odd. The goal seems to be to circumvent Knesset members.”

Another opposition legislator, Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon, said the requests made a mockery of the budget process after the Knesset cleared the 2015 budget only in mid-November. “The state budget approved by the Knesset is fictitious. A month ago they didn’t know they would need to transfer 18 billion shekels? Why didn’t they include the unspent funds in the basic budget?”

The Finance Ministry’s request to move such huge amounts of money – the 22 billion shekels amounts to 6.7% of the 2015 budget of 329.5 billion shekels – comes less than a month after the Knesset approved the 2015 budget in the first place. Lawmakers were given a 150-page document listing the changes and two hours to review and vote on it.

In any case, even if they were to approve it, unless the government spent the entire amount in the next two weeks, the finance committee would have to vote again to approve moving the money into the 2016 budget.

Opposition MKs opposed the whole process, but with only eight votes in the 17-member committee, they wouldn’t have had the power to block it if not for the internecine fighting that broke out among coalition lawmakers.

At issue was some 284 million shekels slated for settlement. Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) held up the vote, insisting that some of the funds be allocated specifically to Haredi settlements.

He also wants Education Minister Naftali Bennett to reverse a reform in the criteria for money budgeted foreign students in yeshiva that had conditioned allocations on students visiting army bases and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, which Haredi parties oppose.

Unless Gafni backed down on the settlement issue, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) said he wouldn’t vote for transferring the money.

“Gafni acts like he’s in the opposition. All of the transfers, including those for settlements, were fixed in the coalition agreements, which Gafni and his party members are committed to,” Smotrich said.

The panel, however, did approve Gafni’s transparency measures, which include a requirement that all budget changes be accompanied by a clear, intelligible explanation for the change and that each change be itemized separately, ending the practice of sandwiching multiple, unrelated items into a single vote.