Knesset passes 2015-2016 budget by 61-59 majority

Knesset passes 2015-2016 budget by 61-59 majority

Lawmakers vote on hundreds of amendments submitted by opposition; fiscal plan stands at $85b for 2015, rising to $89b in 2016

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surrounded by Knesset members after a vote on the 2015-2016 state budget, November 18, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surrounded by Knesset members after a vote on the 2015-2016 state budget, November 18, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israeli lawmakers passed the 2015-2016 budget in a second and third Knesset reading overnight Wednesday-Thursday after several hours of voting on some 400 amendments submitted by the opposition.

The budget passed by a razor-thin majority of 61:59 — essentially along coalition-opposition lines.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) praised the budget, saying it “addressed fundamental problems in the Israeli economy and society.”

The overall budget for 2015 will stand at NIS 329.5 billion ($84.65 billion) and NIS 347 billion ($89.14 billion) for 2016. The deficit for 2015-2016 will stand at 2.9 percent

A slew of government ministries will get a budget increase, including the Education Ministry which will receive an additional NIS 6.7 billion, the Health Ministry which will get an added NIS 4.6 billion, the Public Security Ministry will get an extra NIS 1.7 billion and the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services which will see a comparatively modest NIS 1.3 billion increase to its funds.

Among the reforms included in the budget and touted by the government are a series of plans to open up the food market to more competition, speed up development and planning processes for housing, lower fees related to financial services including pension funds, and a controversial natural gas reform.

The opposition had initially submitted 32,000 amendments in a bid to filibuster the budget and fell the government. Had the vote not passed, new elections would have been held within three months.

The committee in charge of Knesset procedure ruled on Tuesday that the unprecedented number of reservations submitted on the two-year budget would be consolidated to several hundred, lumping together the objections by topic.

Due to the break up of Netanyahu’s previous government at the end of 2014 and the subsequent March elections, the government has been functioning on a month-to-month budget based on the previous year’s spending.

Included in the final bill is Minister for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee Aryeh Deri’s controversial proposal to cut the 17% sales tax on public transportation. He had pledged to cut the tax on basic food products during the election campaign but was forced to drop the proposal following opposition from the Finance Ministry. Instead, he demanded the cut be introduced on public transport.

Another point of contention was the allocation for defense needs with officials from the Finance and Defense Ministries going head to head.

The final agreement, a compromise between the NIS 54 billion ($13.8 billion) offered by Finance Ministry officials and the NIS 62 billion ($15.8 billion) requested by the military, includes provisions for beginning the implementation of structural changes in the IDF, in exchange for an additional NIS 3 billion ($770 million) to be transferred during the year. A further NIS 1 billion ($260 million) is to be transferred to the defense budget to account for price increases and inflation, bringing the total potential sum to NIS 60.1 billion ($15.47 billion).

The Knesset plenary during vote on the state budget for 2015-2016, November 18, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The Knesset plenary during vote on the state budget for 2015-2016, November 18, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu praised the final proposal in Sunday’s cabinet meeting saying it “maintains a proper, responsible macroeconomic framework for Israel, but also adds billions to education, welfare and health, and is accompanied by very important reforms to lower the cost of living, streamline our bureaucracy and advance the Israeli economy.”

The voting on Wednesday got off to a bumpy start with apparent technical difficulties, and a number of lawmakers voting the wrong way, a costly issue considering the coalition’s 61-59 majority.

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel at one point voted the wrong way on an amendment, causing a tie, which forced the Knesset Finance Committee to call a meeting to discuss the amendment, resulting in a delay in Knesset activity.

After Committee chair Moshe Gafni tried to nix any discussion in the meeting, opposition whip Merav Michaeli wrote a letter to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, though she accidentally signed her title as coalition whip.

Netanyahu was caught snoozing at some point during a vote, casting a ballot the wrong way before quickly reversing it.

Edelstein earlier ordered a new vote after an early amendment by Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir passed 47-43. The Knesset speaker instructed the Knesset’s tech team to examine the system since the number of votes did not add up to 120.

Edelstein then ordered a new vote, prompting fierce criticism from the opposition who insisted the system was working fine.

“You can’t just have another vote because you don’t like the result,” said Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich.

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