MKs Take Advantage of Coalition Troubles to Push Social Programs

Knesset members are taking advantage of the lack of a permanent finance minister since Abraham Hirchson took a leave of absence, while Prime Minister and Acting Finance Minster Ehud Olmert is too busy trying to survive after the Winograd report. In addition, the weakness of the ruling coalition has led MKs to propose a very long list of private bills that together could cost the treasury NIS 25-30 billion a year, according to TheMarker's calculations.

With the opening of the Knesset's summer session two weeks ago, MKs from both the coalition and opposition have been working to legislate bills that would cost a pretty penny - all in opposition to the treasury's position. The murky future of the present government, the lack of any real leadership at the Finance Ministry, as well as the lack of a permanent coalition whip after MK Avigdor Yitzhaki resigned more than two weeks ago - all these developments have encouraged MKs to advance their own legislative agenda.

In practice there is no longer any coalition discipline, as it is expected that the coalition will change after the Labor Party primaries on May 28, and it is also likely that the government may fall anyway within a few months - after the final report of the Winograd Committee is released. Therefore, MKs are hurrying to take advantage of the situation while they can and paint themselves as representing social-welfare interests before any cabinet changes or possibly even new elections.

Treasury officials are having a very difficult time stopping the flood of spending proposals, even though every private bill costing more than NIS 5 million a year must be passed by 51 MKs at least - on every reading.

The most important of these bills include one limiting the number of high school students in a class to 32, instead of 40 today, and to 28 students per class in elementary schools, at a cost of NIS 4-5 billion initially and another NIS 2 billion a year. This bill was submitted by Ronit Tirosh of Kadima.

Another proposed law submitted by six different MKs would grant additional tax exemptions for children under five to parents who both work full-time, or to single parents, at an annual cost of NIS 6 billion. The Committee on the Status of Women has already approved the bills.

Another proposal, put forth by Moshe Sharoni of the Pensioners Party, would raise old-age pensions from 16 percent to 20 percent of the average wage, at an annual cost of NIS 4 billion to the state.

Other proposals include improving benefits to disabled victims of Nazi persecution and to reduce the price for present tenants who want to buy their public housing apartments. Another bill would equate the conditions granted to all widows and survivors of IDF soldiers to those granted to the widows of pilots, at an annual cost of about NIS 1 billion.

Other bills would reduce tuition for university students, change the accounting basis for paying VAT, reduce purchase taxes on apartments, provide additional benefits for reserve soldiers, propose boarding schools for children at risk, lower costs for medicines for chronically ill patients, and many others.