Taking Stock / Bleeding Hearts, Empty Minds

If you have never attended a session of the Knesset Finance Committee, you might dismiss the media reports about their debates as bald-faced balderdash.

The quality of the debate, the reasons behind decisions, the things they actually say, and the sheer gobbledygook spewed by the committee's distinguished members truly boggle the mind. They make the distance between the lofty corridors of Jerusalem's government and practical Tel Aviv look infinite.

This week, the committee decided against a blanket acceptance of recommendations tabled by the Grunau panel, which periodically convenes to discuss the national phone company's tariffs. The MKs tweaked and tugged at the new tariff structure recommended by the experts, led by Prof. Reuven Grunau, who meant to lower Bezeq's prices by an average of 5.5 percent. Ultimately, their meddling has increased Bezeq tariffs by NIS 100 million a year.

Do we really need to go over Bezeq's monopolistic status again? Or its heavy hand in its realm? The company's claims that its tariffs have fallen steeply in recent years is immaterial, because they were far too high to begin with. Also, Bezeq's staff is bloated, even after cutbacks in recent years.

A sop to unemployment

But finance committee member Ruhama Avraham raised an intriguing claim. The panel should support Bezeq's position, she postulated, because lowering the company's rates would lead to layoffs, and thus increase unemployment. Quite the protector of the downtrodden, Avraham.

And that sums up the social credo of our elected representatives in a nutshell. When it comes to the thousands of fat-cat Bezeq employees who earn three times the average wage, our Knesset representatives' tender hearts start to bleed. When it comes to hundreds of thousands of aging pensioners and the poverty-stricken families subsisting on state support, they turn trigger-happy.

Doesn't Avraham know that the average wage at Bezeq is NIS 17,000 a month? Doesn't she know that each Bezeq worker fired in recent years, as the company cleaned up its act, received compensation worth hundreds of thousands of dollars beyond their regular pension entitlement?

According to a report on wage costs by government institutions, which the Knesset received half a year ago, Bezeq had no less than 100 employees whose wages cost between NIS 40,000 and NIS 50,000 a month. Is Avraham unaware that even though Bezeq is a monopoly financed by taxpayers, its human resources structure is totally economically untenable?

Of course she knows. But when you're sitting in that bubble known as the Knesset in Jerusalem, it doesn't raise any hackles, or even any questions. Ensconced in that bubble, any bit of drivel passes muster.

The only second opinions the committee heard Wednesday were eight Bezeq workers who chose to attend the meeting.

"The Knesset members wanted to prove to the treasury that they aren't its rubber stamp, which is why they intervened in the rate changes at Bezeq," explained one of the observers at the meeting.

That sounds especially funny considering that the enormously complicated pension reform, which hewed huge chunks from the income supporting hundreds of thousands of pensioners, skipped lightly past the committee without a peep of protest or hint of change.

The only upside to the whole sorry story is this: It's the last time the Knesset members get to intervene in Bezeq's tariffs. From now on, the only ones entitled to set Bezeq's rates will be the finance minister and communications minister. And next time around, they won't be able to roll any blame onto the members of Knesset.

The countdown has begun

It may take a month, or two, or three, or more, but eventually the admission will arrive. Next year, the treasury won't be able to meet its deficit target, which is 2.5-3 percent of GDP under law.

Yes, we promised the Americans when getting their loan guarantees that we'd meet the target. Yes, Netanyahu repeated when taking the job as finance minister that budget deficits are dangerous, and that without reducing the deficit and taxes, economic growth cannot be restored.

But the sounds emanating from the Finance Ministry in recent weeks leave no room for doubt. The deficit in 2004 is going to be bloated; Israel's national debt will be even higher. And something else that will climb higher and higher will be the tone of explanations addressing why the government couldn't meet its deficit target.