Send the Budget Back

The treasury is supposed to submit the 2006 state budget to the Kneset today. The Knesset members, both new and old, will understand very little of it.

The treasury is supposed to submit the 2006 state budget to the Kneset today. The Knesset members, both new and old, will understand very little of it. The names of some of the line items have no connection to where the money is going. Some have dozens of sub-clauses, and the MKs haven't a a clue about what they are and how much money is included in each.

The more experienced MKs know that the real budget is not in the blue book that is is issued to them and approved in the Knesset as a law, but rather in the green book that few people except the clerks ever see. The point of the blue book is clear: to conceal more than it reveals.

The truth is that the High Court of Justice already ruled back in April 2000 that the ambiguous language of the budget blue book is unacceptable. The court ordered an end to discrimination against Muslims in the cemetery development budgets of the (now defunct) Ministry of Religious Affairs. Justice Yitzchak Zamir wrote in his ruling: "After poring over the budget of the Ministry of Religious Affairs like a cryptologist ... I felt as if I was getting lost ... I couldn't see the solution for the paragraphs ... this is not the way to write the budget of a government ministry. A ministerial budget must be transparent to an ordinary person from outside the ministry, including a judge, and not just to kabbalists."

"The law," Zamir continued, "including the Budget Law, must be clear not only so that any person can [understand it] as a principle of democracy, but also so that there is no opportunity for employees of the ministry - any ministry - to manipulate the budget ... It is only right that the ministry employees who prepare the budget proposal, and especially the employees of the Finance Ministry, take pains to make the Budget Law more methodical and clear."

After the High Court ruled that the budget book must be clear, did the treasury send it back for a rewrite and then submit it to the Knesset only after ensuring that every single line item was totally transparent, to prevent even a hint of corruption? In the six years since Zamir's ruling, nothing has changed. The most prominent example of this is the culture budget, which appears in the budget book as a single, enormous line item in which about NIS 360 million and about 50 sub-clauses are hidden from view.

The new Knesset has a lot of senior people from the military, academia and trade unions, people who are able to read books. This Knesset also has a great many MKs from the free professions, people who know their rights and won't let the treasury stomp on them. A suggestion for these MKs: Do not support the budget on its first reading without extracting a promise from the Finance Ministry to produce a detailed explanation of every single line item and sub-clause before the second reading.

The same suggestion is addressed to the Knesset's new legal adviser, attorney Nurit Elstein. The High Court ruling specifically said that in its current format the draft budget does not meet the requirements of good government. The Knesset attorney certainly has the authority to ensure that the treasury and other ministries respect the ruling and to send the budget back for a rewrite.

If the Finance Ministry wants, it could easily provide the information. If the task is too complicated for treasury officials, the accountant-general of each ministry could do it in less than one workday. There's no need even to print the green book: the treasury could make it available to the public on its extensive Internet site.

Honored Knesset and new Knesset members, you have before you an historic opportunity to be the first Knesset, the first MKs, to not only approve the budget but also to understand it. Do not miss this opportunity. True, in any event you will be a rubber-stamp for the cabinet and the treasury, but at least you'll know what you're signing.