Shas stalls budget with demands for periphery building projects

Watered down version of Drought Levy passes.

ariel attias 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ariel attias 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Just when it seemed that the 2009-2010 budget stood on solid legs after some of the most-protested clauses, nicknamed "goats" in Knesset hallways, were removed, Shas rained on the premature parade Wednesday, delaying debates for hours when Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Attias demanded an additional NIS 200 million for building projects in the periphery. Attias's demand stalled debate over the Drought Levy in the Finance Committee after the debate and votes had already been delayed so that Shas MK Amnon Cohen's subcommittee could hammer out a compromise with the Finance Ministry over the controversial water tax. Attias threatened that if the government did not cave in, Shas's representatives on the Finance Committee would vote against the budget. With Shas MKs voting against the budget, the committee was likely to find itself virtually deadlocked. Although Prime Minister's Office Director-General Eyal Gabbai assured journalists Wednesday afternoon that "Shas would lift its threat without the budget being extended or other ministries suffering cuts," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Attias were secretly holding a closed-door meeting. During that meeting, Netanyahu reportedly promised Attias that he would be delivered the additional funds, which would be drawn from "unused sums" from Attias's budget as well as from other budgets earmarked for the periphery beyond that of Attias's ministry. Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) said shortly after Attias's request that he had not been notified or consulted prior to the surprise call for more funds, but that he found it improbable that such a demand would be made without the support of the rest of Shas's Knesset faction. But Cohen's surprise was nothing compared to that of Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni, who was ready Wednesday to begin pushing the final clauses of the budget and the Economic Arrangements Bill through committee and on to the house floor before Attias's announcement. Both the budget and the Economic Arrangements Bill are supposed to be ready for their second and third votes on the plenum floor by next Wednesday. Sources close to the Finance Committee chairman said that Gafni had not been warned of the last-minute surprise, and a committee official complained that this sort of "extortion" gave a bad reputation to haredi parties such as Shas and Gafni's own United Torah Judaism. The Finance Ministry was also caught off-guard by the demand, especially after ministry officials believed that they had satisfied the contentious party's budget demands by a number of concessions made earlier this week, including canceling the VAT on produce and increasing the sums granted in child subsidies. The largest "goat" that was reduced - if not dropped altogether - Wednesday was the Drought Levy, which will go into effect as soon as the budget is approved, but which underwent significant changes from its original text on its way through the Finance Committee. After two weeks of wrangling, the committee passed the levy Wednesday afternoon with some significant changes, with agreement reached to increase the amount of water per consumer that will be charged at the basic rate. From July 15, or whenever the budget is approved, until November 1, households with from one to four people will receive 16 cubic meters of water per month at the Tariff A rate. Each additional member of the household will get 4.2 cubic meters of water. Anything above that will be charged the Tariff C rate plus a NIS 20 levy over and above that. From November 1 to January 1, households of up to four people will receive 18 cubic meters of water per month and each additional person five cubic meters. From January 1 on, households of up to two people will receive 12 cubic meters per month and each extra person five cubic meters. In both these cases, anyone exceeding their allotment will be charged the NIS 20 levy as well. National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau (Israel Beiteinu) praised the decision. "I am happy that the MKs exercised their national responsibility and understood the depth of the water crisis and voted in favor of the levy. This is an important step in conserving a resource we all must share in equally and preserve carefully. It's not the money from the levy itself that interests us, but the savings in water that it will bring," he said in a statement