State budget passes after 12 hours of voting and antics

During the voting, MKs gathered in their lounge behind the plenum to celebrate Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s 55th birthday with cakes.

The Knesset  (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Knesset
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Knesset approved the 2015-2016 state budget and Economic Arrangements Bill early Thursday, after an overnight marathon bill of over 12 hours, during which parliamentary antics abounded.
For much of the time, the MKs had to press “for” or “against” on a screen, over and over again, with occasional roll-call votes – the opposition was limited to 20 total – during which the lawmakers could leave the plenum to get something to eat or relieve themselves, which coalition and opposition coordinators forbade them from doing otherwise.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu passed the time by reading The Aaronsohn Saga by Shmuel Katz, a biography of the World War I-era Nili underground’s founder, Aaron Aaronsohn, and his staff even tweeted a photo of the book’s cover.
With 120 lawmakers stuck in one plenum all night, there was plenty of joking around and shouting. MKs kept up the tradition of shouting what their vote is – “for!” or “against!” – in order to confuse the other side, and at a certain point, opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) had enough and pleaded to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to make them stop.
During the voting, MKs gathered in their lounge behind the plenum to celebrate Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s 55th birthday with cakes. Culture Minister Miri Regev gave snacks out to the ministers sitting near her, and MK Michal Biran (Zionist Union) distributed homemade chocolate-chip cookies. Several legislators were spotted with chocolate bars at their seats, and MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) ate sunflower seeds.
Medical issues came up over the night. MK Oren Hazan (Likud) sat in the back of the plenum for much of the night, attached to an inhalator, having come to the Knesset after spending three days in the hospital because his chronic respiratory disorder was complicated by sinusitis. He asked the opposition to offset him, meaning have someone be absent so that his nonattendance wouldn’t be counted. However, the opposition refused, ostensibly due to his reputation as the 20th Knesset’s class clown. Still, Netanyahu paid him a sympathy visit.
Early Thursday, even in the coalition the sympathy for Hazan seemed to fizzle after he accused MK Esawi Frej (Meretz) of double-voting, a crime for which Hazan’s father, former MK Yehiel Hazan, had been convicted.
Frej had helped MK Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid) vote, because she has muscular dystrophy and is wheelchair-bound and had trouble doing it herself, though she is usually a very capable legislator.
Elharar burst out in tears after Hazan shouted to Edelstein that what they did is illegal, and many MKs, including Netanyahu, approached her to comfort her. The vote was considered legal.
Earlier in the evening, Elharar was removed from the Knesset Finance Committee for shouting too much, and had to be wheeled out by an usher.
The Finance Committee had convened after the opposition succeeded in voting down the Communications Ministry’s budget, when Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel accidentally voted against it. The committee then had to change the clause in the state budget back and bring it to the plenum again, delaying votes by close to three hours, because the opposition used all means possible to stretch the meeting out.
Eventually, at about 4:30 a.m., and after several MKs from the Joint List started fading and agreed to offset coalition lawmakers, the budget passed 61-59, and the economic arrangement bills was approved 57-55.
Much of the Knesset emptied out, but some lawmakers braced themselves for a planned 12-hour Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on delaying the haredi conscription law, scheduled for 11 a.m.
The final budget totals came to NIS 383.86 billion for 2015 and NIS 424.81b. for 2016. For both years, the deficit target was set at 2.9 percent of GDP, which, given growth estimates for 2015, would see an increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio for the first time since the global financial crisis. The original targets for the years were 2.5% and 2%, respectively.
As happens almost every year, the budget law set a new deficit path for future years to bring Israel’s debt down to a “sustainable” 60% of GDP. The deficit will supposedly drop to 2.5% of GDP in 2017, and shrink 0.25 percentage points each year until it hits 1.5% in 2020, where it will remain.
The International Monetary Fund has noted with opprobrium that the new debt paths Israel sets are virtually meaningless, given its inability to stick to them. A new budgetary law will require new spending to identify revenue sources that conform to deficit and spending limits for three years ahead. To pay down previous deficit spending, Israel will pay out NIS 38.7b. in 2015 and NIS 39.4b. in 2016.
Despite having a curtailed time period for approving the budget, the Knesset Finance Committee voted on every section of the budget individually for the first time, which Gafni said increased transparency.
In the final accounting, the defense budget will rise from NIS 57b. in 2015 to roughly NIS 60b. in 2016, though NIS 3b. is dependent on reforms in the Defense Ministry. Overall spending on security and public order will remain stable at just over NIS 74b. The defense spending raises conscript salaries 50% and reforms the Defense Ministry’s spending habits, and increases salaries of capital police by NIS 10,000 a year.
Spending on so-called “social” ministries (such as education, welfare and others) will rise a combined NIS 10.4b., to NIS 140.7b. from NIS 129.7b., though that total represents a 3% cut from the original growth path (save education, which managed to salvage most of its budget during the debates).
The economic arrangements bill that passed alongside the budget also includes several new policies. Among them: cuts to child allotments will be partially reversed; the creation of a “savings account” for every child, which he or she can access after the age of 18; passage of the Sheshinski 2 Commission’s recommendations on taxing non-oil and gas natural resources (such as potash); an infrastructure and jobs fund for the Negev to be funded by such natural resource taxes; and reducing interest rates for certain eligible mortgages.
It also contained “the cornflakes law” for increasing competition in the dry foods sector; plans for increased sewage infrastructure development needed for newly built apartments to come onto the market; regulation for connecting industry to the natural gas network; and reforms in the electricity sector.
Kahlon said it was “a social budget,” that put citizens at the center, tackled the cost of living and promoted growth.
But the Adva Center, which focuses on social equality, said it fell short on several measures, especially those having to do with gender.
For example, plans to extend the school day, which would help working parents, were postponed until 2021. The housing budget, while larger than it had been in the last few years, was still less than half what it was in 2000. The budget also tightened criteria for unemployment benefits, according to the center.
Though the budget included new data on how men and women benefited from the various clauses, a welcome development, the center found that tax breaks disproportionately benefited men.