Knesset Committee Approves Principle of Two-year Budgets

Opposition: NIS 1.5b in the bill is a slush fund from PM to Gafni

Despite some opposition, the concept of building national budgets for two years rather than one received a strong boost yesterday.

The special broad-based Knesset committee empaneled to discuss the subject approved the law for a two-year budget for 2011-2012. The bill can now be brought before the full Knesset plenum for second and third readings into law.

The coalition plans to have the bill voted on next Monday.

The bill, approved by a joint meeting of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and Finance Committee, is not the budget itself, but only the law allowing the presentation of a two-year budget instead of the previously mandated annual budget. The actual budget will be approved by the cabinet and presented to the Knesset in September.

Kadima and Meretz plan to filibuster the bill by raising dozens of objections. They hope to draw out the debate for a week and force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his ministers and coalition MKs to closely follow Knesset proceedings during the extended debate.

As part of the new law, the cabinet will be required to present the Knesset with a forecast on the economic situation and the budget during 2011. In a last-minute addition to the bill, at the end of 2011 the state will provide an additional NIS 1.5 billion to finance changes in the two-year budget, based on the needs of various ministries at that time. The cabinet will decide how to allocate this sum, but the Finance Committee will have to approve the additional spending.

Opposition MKs from Kadima and Meretz battled fiercely with coalition MKs over this section of the bill. The opposition called the NIS 1.5 billion a "slush fund" for use by Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ). The MKs say that Gafni could pressure the treasury to allocate funds to Haredi causes or other coalition parties.

Haim Oron (New Movement-Meretz ) told Gafni: "You're ruining the committee." Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ) said: "The government has bought Gafni in order to approve the new law."

Jacob Edery (Kadima ) claimed that "Gafni, who at the beginning announced he was opposed to a two-year budget, decided today to approve the budget in the Finance Committee after a lightning discussion in the committee. It would be interesting to know what happened."

Oron and the Kadima MKs stormed out of the meeting in protest because the treasury made last-minute changes in the bill just before the vote. Plesner said that "Netanyahu realized that in order to pass a two-year budget that does not meet constitutional and economic tests he had to use methods he knows very well. And this time he granted in an unprecedented arrangement a slush fund to be divided up in 2012 based on his political priorities and those of his 'natural partners' on the committee."

Gafni explained that the NIS 1.5 billion appropriation was meant to offset the loss of parliamentary supervision over a two-year budget. Oron replied: "What's this nonsense? Have they given you money?"