The Bottom Line / The Cheesy Holiday

Once upon a time, in ancient days, when the educational system was still to be taken seriously; children learned about the Book of Ruth, about the giving of the Torah, counting the Omer (harvest bundles) and even brought first fruits to feel as if they were participating in the holiday pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Today things are a bit different. Instead of talking about these boring topics, children learn in school about the Shavuot holiday as a family celebration and spend their time discussing the holiday menu and, in particular, cheese cake.

Children are taught that in order to make a proper cheese cake they must start with fresh cheese, sugar, eggs and flour, and the most important thing is to be extremely patient during the baking process - otherwise the cake might fall.

Amazingly Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Finance Minster Avraham Hirchson this week created their own cheese cake for us - in the guise of the 2006 state budget.

How did they go about baking it?

The story starts with the affair of the health services. The cabinet gave a committee of experts the job of ranking new drugs based on an addition of NIS 200 million to the drug budget. The committee presented a list that cost NIS 467 million.

This was the moment when Olmert had to dismiss the committee and return the handling of the matter to the Health Ministry.

Olmert should have explained that the cabinet discusses every day, all day, matters of life and death: cutting the defense budget, approving a military operation inside Gaza, setting the police budget, fixing the route of the security fence, deciding the budget for the war against traffic accidents and road safety improvements and on ways to solve air and water pollution problems.

So how does the cabinet make the decision? According to the pressure applied?

Olmert did not have the courage to tell the truth. Hirchson could not stand the pressure either. (He should ask former Finance Minster Moshe Nissim for advice on the matter.) This is how the two of them approved an additional NIS 360 million for the health basket, and that is how the two of them proved to everyone that they are weak and malleable and have no real set of priorities.

It is now clear that heads of the local authorities are already preparing the next strike, with many other interest groups not far behind.

Therefore, it is funny to hear Olmert say that next year he will not add any more money to the health basket. Next year not only will he add to it, but he will pay dearly, because everyone knows that he has no principles so that the pressure on him and his capitulations will only increase.

The cabinet is certainly entitled to decide to increase the health services basket by another NIS 350 million ? in addition to the additional NIS 360 million already decided on. But then the head of the treasury's budget division, Kobi Haber, will need to immediately announce that the same amount will have to be cut from the budgets of the various ministries. Otherwise he will be violating the basic principle that there are no free lunches: You cannot create something out of nothing.

The cabinet ministers need to understand that if they want to increase a specific budget item, they must cut somewhere else. Otherwise, there will be no effective barrier to prevent more spending. But the announcement was never made.

That is how we have moved on to a problematic state budget with a new and disreputable source of money: "Transfers of funds from budgetary items that have been under-utilized." Never before has there ever been such a trick, and that is an additional bad sign. Because in every future crisis, the ministers will demand that Haber find them another "under-utilized" line item, so that they can spend a few dozen millions more.

That is how Olmert and Hirchson have baked up a Shavuot cake for us. The cheese is no longer fresh, and the recipe has been forgotten. But the result is clear: The cake has fallen.