Knesset okays biannual budget bill in 3rd reading

After marathon overnight deliberations, government also given until July to pass state budget.

netanyahu what 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu what 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
After 21 hours of marathon deliberations, the Knesset on Tuesday morning approved Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz's proposal to start passing budgets every two years instead of annually. It also approved his proposal to extend the deadline for passing the state budget from 45 to 106 days from the formation of the new government, giving the coalition until July. The bill was passed in its third reading Tuesday morning, by 63 MKs to 27, after the opposition staged a lengthy filibuster against the move. Opposition members stalled the final vote for many hours with speeches that dragged on throughout the night. In the initial vote on Monday afternoon, 64 MKs voted for the measure, while 42 opposed it. The coalition approved the proposal despite a boycott from the five Labor rebels - MKs Eitan Cabel, Shelly Yacimovich, Ophir Paz-Pines, Amir Peretz and Yuli Tamir. Also on Monday, the Finance Committee unanimously voted in MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) as its chairman. A two-year budget prevents Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from facing a threat to bring down his government in early 2010, because under the current law, if the government does not pass a budget by March 31 each (non-election) year, it automatically falls. But Netanyahu's associates said the real reason for instituting a two-year budget was to allow government ministries and local authorities to plan strategically, more than a few months in advance. Steinitz's case for extending the budget deadline was based primarily on Pessah, which he argued would take crucial time needed to form the budget away from the coalition, and thus be unfair. He said the change would also allow lawmakers to have more time to study the budget before voting on it. Opposition members, however, viewed the move with suspicion, with some legislators going as far as to call it a "power grab" meant to give Netanyahu's government a broader ability to remain in control. "That's exactly their goal," said newly elected Kadima MK Robert Tibayev, who voted against both of Steinitz's initiatives. "They're trying to expand their control and stay in power as long as possible. For me, it's quite reminiscent of the old style of politics in the former USSR." Tibayev, who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1994 and lives in Ofakim, said he was all too familiar with that form of politics. "They just take control," he said. "And that's not the way things should be done in a democratic country." Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni also criticized the government's biannual budget plan, saying Netanyahu's coalition was only going through with the proposal to ensure its own survival, despite the uncertainty that would accompany the process. "Netanyahu trampled democracy in forming the government, and now with his first vote, he is doing the same to the Knesset," Livni said. "He is only doing it for his own survival, and it's intolerable." Former finance minister MK Ronnie Bar-On (Kadima) also expressed his objection to the budget law amendment, delivering two separate speeches to MKs - one from the Knesset floor and one from the podium - as well as various outbursts during Steinitz's speech. Bar-On's main point of contention was that with the current uncertainties surrounding the global financial crisis, such a budget could not be drafted. "This is not something you can pull out of your pocket," he said, "We've heard dozens, if not hundreds of expert opinions over a month and a half, and we've made an economic decision about this." Kadima lawmakers were joined by other opposition members in their protest of the new law, including Meretz MK Haim Oron, who vocally opposed the plan both in the Knesset chamber and during the Finance Committee meeting. Paz-Pines, who broke ranks with the coalition to oppose to the plan, called the move "parliamentary hooliganism." "This is a big test of the Knesset and coalition," he said. "Is the Knesset going to serve as the government's rubber stamp? Is the coalition going to be the government's puppet? This is a world record - there's no country in the world that has a biannual budget, and it is our duty - not our privilege, but our duty - to remind the government what they're doing, because we were chosen by the people." Responding to the charges of political thievery, Likud officials said that former prime minister and Kadima founder Ariel Sharon had also passed a bill in three readings in one day when he took over. The bill repealed the direct election system for the premiership.