"It's time to stop using the term 'decrees', which was appropriate 200 years ago," Finance Minister Silvan Shalom said last week.
Shalom hates being identified with "decrees". As an MK, he preferred promulgating bills that benefited the public in general, and his constituency in particular.
But he has no choice, as finance minister, but to announce "decrees," so he prefers denial. These aren't decrees. Stop that babble about decrees.
So, here's a list of some of those not-decrees being prepared by the treasury:
New cuts in unemployment benefits (after the rules of eligibility have already been stiffened and unemployment payments were already cut in the last rounds of cuts); tougher conditions for guaranteed income allowances (which were already toughened in the last rounds of cuts); a cut in National Insurance Institute payments (which were also trimmed in the last round of cuts). As far as Shalom is concerned, these aren't decrees. For those who remain eligible for any of these allotments, they certainly are.
Government allotments have grown in recent years far beyond what is reasonable, and some money is apparently going to unemployed who could be working. The problem is that the indiscriminate cuts could harm many who really don't have an alternative, whether because of health reasons or other personal circumstances. Do the NII, the Employment Service, and the Social Affairs Ministry have the tools to deal with hundreds of thousands of cases on an individual basis? Doubtful.
The treasury plan does have some decrees that are easier to live with. For example, the cancelation of the tax benefits for Negev residents and Jewish residents of the territories. Those benefits were born in sin, and there's no reason to regret them being canceled, along with similar benefits in other parts of the country. And there 1,200 teachers who will be fired because the treasury says their subject matter isn't even studied any more in the schools, or for other reasons. All firings are painful, but why should employees of the civil service enjoy immunity that thousands of workers from the private sector don't enjoy.
The treasury wants to cut "NIS 8-9 billion" from the 2003 budget, according to the following scheme: a third from the transfer payments, a third from social services like education, health and welfare, and a third from defense. Each sector is likely to produce highly vocal lobbyists against the cuts. The defense lobby discovered the prime minister himself in their midst this weekend, when he said there's a limit to how much can be cut - NIS 2 billion. As for the welfare lobby, it's not clear whether the treasury and its minister are taking into account the intensity of the expected opposition to the planned cuts, which are apparently unprecedented.
While it's not clear if those two cuts will pass, it can be safely assumed that certain cuts won't happen: no government ministries will be jettisoned (the fact the treasury dared raise the proposal resulted in bitter smiles all around), no redundant administrations will be cut, no functions will be merged, no allotments will be cut, especially for yeshiva students and Torah schools. Cutbacks for the yeshivas? In the circumstances of the current coalition, it's not even going to show up as a proposal that will be sacrificed for larger cuts.
The entire package of cuts would be greeted with greater credibility if the government and its ministers displayed even a sliver of readiness to cut themselves, their offices, and government flab. In effect, the government continues to grow and the ministers hand out the booty to themselves and their cronies, in the form of senior bank appointments, ambassadorships and jobs in state companies.
MK Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism has submitted a private members bill for an Operation Defensive Shield Loan (like the Operation Peace for Galilee Loan of 20 years ago) as an alternative to cuts. For now the government opposes more taxes, but there's reason to suspect that the government will ultimately choose the easy way out, by picking the taxpayer's pocket.