MKs use 'constituent relations' budgets for GPS systems and High Court filings

Top spenders: Eli Gabai, Ran Cohen and Ibrahim Sarsour.

The three MKs who spent the most to keep in touch with their constituencies were MKs Ibrahim Sarsour (United Arab List), Eli Gabai (NU-NRP) and Ran Cohen (Meretz). Each spent considerably more than his allotted budget of up to NIS 68,000, according to figures released by the Knesset on Sunday. According to the data on the 17th Knesset members' spending, Sarsour spent a whopping NIS 89,769, more than half of which - NIS 47,454 - was for printing and copying. Gabai actually submitted the highest outlay, totaling over NIS 97,000, but explained that NIS 17,173 was for expenses incurred in 2007. His biggest outlay was NIS 23,155 for "professional advice." Cohen reported NIS 77,972 in expenditures, of which NIS 9,241 was for fees to the High Court of Justice and NIS 5,348 was for the editing of a book he is writing on public housing. MKs who are cabinet ministers tended to spend less, as they had separate budgets from their ministries. In fact, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not spend a single shekel of the constituent relations budget allotted to him as an MK. This was also the case in 2007. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz spent only NIS 1,007, and Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra spent NIS 1,209, out of which he bought a car CD player for NIS 589. Every MK is entitled to an annual budget of NIS 49,000 for keeping in contact with his or her constituents, which is meant to cover such expenses and printing and photocopying, newspapers, office equipment, cellular phone bills, professional literature and the like. Those with an office outside of the Knesset are entitled to an additional NIS 19,000 for rent and equipment. An MK can transfer up to NIS 12,000 of his unspent budget from one year to the next, meaning that in theory, an MK might be able to spend up to NIS 80,000 in a given year. All MKs must get approval from the Knesset before making these purchases, meaning that in some cases the Knesset administration itself actually approves excessive expenses. Excessive spenders are expected to cut back on outlays the following year, but only rarely is an MK who leaves the Knesset asked to pay back what he or she overspent. Knesset regulations limit MKs to 26-inch TVs and basic cable packages for their offices, as well as a DVD player and one recording device costing up to NIS 1,000. MKs cannot purchase items abroad, but they can buy them in duty-free shops. Changing times also call for different methods of keeping in touch with one's constituency. MK Gideon Sa'ar (Likud), for example, spent NIS 37,842 to set up a Web site, and was not the only MK who reported Web site expenses. Moreover, it is now acceptable for MKs who live far from Jerusalem and travel long distances to purchase car CD players and GPS systems. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit spent NIS 27,757 on postal items and services, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz spent NIS 23,400 on a conference, Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh invested NIS 2,399 in a GPS system, and Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu bought "light refreshments" for NIS 15,000. Polls were popular items. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni commissioned one for NIS 30,000, Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman paid NIS 38,000 for polling, and Likud MK Yisrael Katz paid NIS 34,000 for a poll. MKs Majallie Whbee (Kadima), Said Nafa (Balad), Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) and Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) all invested in digital cameras with prices ranging from NIS 999 to NIS 1,700. MK Sofa Landver (Israel Beiteinu), meanwhile, preferred to pay NIS 4,273 for "professional photographs." Labor MK Amir Peretz channeled NIS 7,966 of his total annual expenditure of NIS 76,087 into "cleaning services." Many MKs invested significant sums in laptops, PDAs, and small refrigerators and coffee machines for their offices. Knesset spokesman Giora Pordes noted that MKs who were not reelected could buy the items they had purchased with Knesset funds in accordance with the depreciation tables provided by the Israel Tax Authority. For example, former Meretz MK Avshalom Vilan spent some NIS 20,000 to take home his office's used electronics. Similarly, incoming MKs can buy equipment from their outgoing colleagues - thus spending less of their budget than they would have on new items.