A discussion on water tariffs in the Knesset State Control Committee on Tuesday morning turned into a heated argument between Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss.
During the discussion, Steinitz accused Lindenstrauss of taking only his own opinion into consideration, while the state comptroller accused the government of ignoring the poorer sectors of society.
Water prices are set to rise by 40 percent between January 1, 2010, and January 1, 2011.
"It is of utmost importance to keep a distinction between policy-setting and policy-review," Steinitz said, "because otherwise we'll need to appoint a comptroller to look into the comptroller."
When Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines said that Steinitz's comments "sounded like a threat," the minister said he was not making threats, but rather giving an explanation.
Addressing the raised tariffs, Steinitz said that without the price hike, either the state budget would need to take a NIS 1 billion cut, or "desalination projects and pipe-laying would be delayed."
"After years of drought, [at a point where] we're finally putting an emphasis on the matter, and we need to ask ourselves if we're ready to postpone again, or slow down the overall repair of the water system, because money doesn't grow on trees," he said.
"Anyone who suggests cutting a billion shekels needs to understand that this is what he's suggesting," Steinitz added.
Lindenstrauss said that the government had decided to go ahead with raising the tariffs without further discussion, and without taking his expressed opinion into consideration.
At a meeting of the Knesset's State Control Committee last week, Lindenstrauss had highlighted the bottom line of his recent report on the matter, saying, "In light of the potential impact on the weaker sectors of society, and the fact that the increase does not seem to include all the production costs of water, it would be prudent to reconsider the increase and delay it until after a discussion of all of the relevant issues."
His analysis made reference to the recent government poverty report that cited hundreds of thousands of children and many single parent families living below the poverty line.
The rationale for increasing the water prices was to ensure that they reflected the real cost of water, the State Comptroller's Office wrote in its opinion. No one disputed that the current prices do not reflect the cost of production, particularly in the age of desalination.
However, even this price hike does not seem to include all of the production costs, the comptroller wrote, which means there could be similar drastic increases in the future - which posed a serious threat to lower income families.
Ehud Zion Waldoks contributed to this report.