House trims planned spending cuts

Finance Minister Kaspar Villiger is pleased with the outcome of the debate Keystone

Government plans to slash public spending by SFr3.3 billion ($2.4 billion) have proved too sweeping for the House of Representatives.

This content was published on October 2, 2003 - 21:34

Parliamentarians on Thursday voted to limit the cuts to SFr2.8 billion over the next few years, partially sparing pensions and education.

The Swiss finance minister, Kaspar Villiger, said he was pleased that the package had been approved, despite the amendments.

“It is positive that the parliament has actually managed to finalise such a plan in one single session,” he told swissinfo.

“However, there have been some decisions, which I don’t think will be possible,” he added.

Villiger also lamented the fact that the House was not prepared to be as bold as the government and the Senate, which approved the entire SFr3.3 billion package of spending cuts.

“I would have liked to save SFr300 million more but I still think it is an amazing achievement that the plan was finalised on Thursday.”

Disappointment

Rudi Steiner, chairman of the committee that had prepared the spending cuts debate in detail, said he was disappointed.

“I expected more from the House of Representatives. From a Centre-right point of view, the goal has not been achieved,” he told swissinfo.

The Left and Green parties, which are in the minority in the House, said the outcome was bad news for public services.

“This decision means that our public services will deteriorate,” Cecile Bühlmann, spokeswoman of the Green Party, told swissinfo.

“This is a big blow for social security and the environment. However, we were able to prevent the worst-case scenario for energy projects and crèches.”

Time pressure

The Senate, which also debated the spending cuts during the current session, approved the package without much ado, but the House of Representatives battled to wrap up its debate in time.

The Left and the Right fought over the issue for four long days. The Left lamented that the cuts were too high and that some were unnecessary. The Centre-right and Right wanted to cut spending even more.

The latter eventually prevailed because they make up the biggest bloc in parliament. The Greens and the Left struggled to secure concessions, and saw their proposal to raise SFr1 billion by introducing an inheritance unceremoniously thrown out.

Although the debate had to be postponed on two occasions because not enough parliamentarians were present, there were some ugly scenes, uncharacteristic of the normally gentlemanly Swiss parliament.

Procrastination

Both sides accused each other of procrastinating, and the speaker of the House, Yves Christen, repeatedly had to remind parliamentarians of the rules of the debate.

“The hostile atmosphere did not surprise me and sometimes it got quite ugly and personal,” Steiner said.

“The atmosphere was full of hatred and nobody agreed to compromises,” Bühlmann added.

The finance minister, Kaspar Villiger, was also clearly uncomfortable with the tone of the debate.

“If my daughters had asked me how parliament works I would have had trouble giving them a satisfactory answer,” he told swissinfo.

He said he was continuously trying to remind parliamentarians to focus on the entire package and not start squabbling over each little item.

Cantons affected

One of the main bones of contention concerned the cantons, which could see their costs shoot up as a result of cuts to the federal budget.

The government wants the cantons to save around SFr100 million a year, but they themselves are expecting an additional financial burden of between SFr240 million and SFr350 million.

In road construction, the government wants to save in different areas but it mainly wants to cut spending on building motorways. In 2006 it wants to cut SFr198 million and development aid looks set to be slashed by SFr180 million.

There was a lot of talk about massive cuts in the agricultural sector, but at the end the farmers’ representatives had their way and managed to reduce the spending cuts by SFr57 million.

Less fortunate was the environment agency, which the House decided could do with even less money than the government had proposed cutting from its budget.

The Left and the Greens opposed the entire package, and the cuts will be revisited during parliament's winter session in December.

swissinfo, Christian Raaflaub (translation: Billi Bierling)

Key facts

Proposed spending cuts:
2004: SFr1 billion
2005: SFr2.2 billion
2006: SFr3.3 billion
Finance ministry: SFr451 million
Economics ministry: SFr417 million
Defence ministry: SFr270 million
Foreign ministry: SFr148 million
Justice ministry: SFr116 million
Environment, transport, energy and communications ministry: SFr666 million
Interior ministry: SFr639 million

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