'Most politicized budget ever' passes

Mofaz slams Livni for "once again" showing inability to make right decision; Eini: General strike averted.

bar-on 6.2 face 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bar-on 6.2 face 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After 16 hours of negotiations, the state budget, described as the "most politicized budget ever," passed a cabinet vote early Monday morning. But its many detractors argued that the proposal was not long for this world, with the list of people disappointed by key cuts growing as the details of the late-night horse trading became known. Now that Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On's defense-cutting alternative of the NIS 319 billion budget has passed its first hurdle, it is expected to meet with staunch opposition in the Knesset, both in the plenum and in the Finance Committee. Labor ministers maintained their resistance to the plan, continuing to demand that the Treasury increase the budget by 2.5 percent rather than the slated 1.7%. Labor's continued opposition to the budget will give it an uphill struggle in the Finance Committee, which is headed by MK Avishai Braverman (Labor). The vast majority of MKs serving on the committee come either from opposition parties or from Shas and Labor, the coalition parties that rejected the budget in the cabinet. Of the 26 members of the cabinet, 13 ministers supported the budget with 12 opposing, after Kadima ministers Avi Dichter, Ze'ev Boim and Ruhama Avraham-Balila, as well as GIL Pensioners' Party ministers Rafi Eitan and Ya'acov Ben-Yizri, were convinced to back the Treasury's proposal in meetings with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Assistant Prime Minister Haim Ramon abstained from the vote. In return for their support, the five ministers were reportedly promised additional funding for their respective offices. Dichter was allegedly spared the serious cuts that had been slated against the police - even after Olmert had allegedly promised him last spring that he would receive additional funding to help raise police salaries. The GIL ministers were allegedly granted increases in services to the elderly. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon (Labor) said that the approved budget was problematic but noted that the Galilee Law, which offers additional subsidies for the northern periphery, had been re-budgeted at the last minute after having been slated to be gutted. Cuts to maternity leave and increases to university tuition in the fields of law, accounting and business management were also removed from the Economic Arrangements Bill, as were a number of highly unpopular clauses that targeted higher education. The budget for higher education, though, has yet to be agreed upon between Treasury officials and the Council for Higher Education. Pensioners' Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan took pride Monday in what Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer termed the "buying" of the GIL Party. "The Pensioners' Party managed in a place where no party succeeded before. We promise that the good news to elderly delivered in the 2009 budget is far from the last achievement." Eitan celebrated the fact that his party, as the only non-Kadima voters in favor of the budget, had managed to secure a number of agreements for their supporters, including increasing the budget for pensions to seniors aged 70-80 by NIS 350 million. An additional NIS 40 m. is to go towards putting widowers' payments on an equal footing with those of widows, and a NIS 30 m. proposed cut in the Economic Arrangements Law that would cancel the 30% discount in municipal taxes for the elderly was removed from the law. But many MKs were far from satisfied with the concessions made. MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima), was catapulted into the ranks of the budget's opposition Monday morning when he discovered that the Homesh Project, which had promised NIS 133 m. to aid in the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants, had been completely removed from the budget rolls. That money was meant to have been part of a five-year plan to improve the well-being of immigrants, and this year's budget had been supposed to focus on housing to improve the slum conditions in which many immigrants live, and enable others to finally move out of absorption centers, where they have remained due to lack of alternative housing options. The budget for the National Council for Road Safety was also slashed by over NIS 100 m., a cut that road safety activists said would effectively put an end to the organization's efforts to reduce traffic-related fatalities. The budget's opponents maintained the position Monday that even if the budget had narrowly passed its first hurdle, it was sure to be drastically re-tooled before it would receive Knesset approval. "The budget that was approved will go through more changes," promised Labor chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "It is no secret that the Labor Party was pushing for a widened budget that would enable passing an additional two billion for security, welfare and education." Transportation Minister and candidate for the Kadima leadership Shaul Mofaz also said Monday morning that the budget wouldn't last very long. "Whoever wins the Kadima primaries will obviously have to bring about a new budget. It's a pity that the budget passed due to 'political' reasons," he said.