Coalition tax hike legislation halted by late night Riigikogu filibuster

The Riigikogu's main debating hall.
The Riigikogu's main debating hall. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Due to filibustering action on the part of opposition MPs, the Riigikogu was unable to confirm its weekly agenda following a marathon session which lasted until midnight Monday, and which saw the coalition unable to get its raft of taxation and family allowance reforms read let alone passed, at its first reading.

The three opposition parties, the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), the Center Party and Isamaa have together engaged in the largest filibuster ever to have taken place at the Riigikogu, the parties say.

The opposition has also charged the Reform-Eesti 200-SDE coalition of bundling all the far-ranging tax hikes and changes into the one "cluster" bill which, the opposition says, hampers substantive debate and discussion on the legislation.

Finance minister: Coalition has a right to implement its policies

Minister of Finance Mart Võrklaev told ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) Monday that the opposition, while working on balancing out the six-party Riigikogu, has to accept that the coalition has a mandate to implement its own policies.

Finance Minister Mart Võrklaev (Reform). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Võrklaev said: "The opposition must accept the [March 5] election result and the fact that our coalition got a majority. It has to accept that the coalition has the possibility to implement its policies. The work of the Riigikogu is being hindered today, and the chamber is in effect being shut down."

The finance minister conceded that his party, too, had used filibustering when it was in opposition, but said that it did not do so in the manner the current opposition is.

"If a bill was definitely being introduced, we examined its content and made many amendments. However, a situation where the Riigikogu cannot even present a bill and commence a debate on it is still canceling-out the Riigikogu, and that is not the type of working body the Riigikogu we have should be."

Riigikogu session lasted nine hours, ending at midnight

In Monday's late-night sitting, MPs took advantage of the Riigikogu Rules of Procedure and Internal Rules Act, to table as many inquiries and amendments as they could, right at the start of the session. These totaled 127, along with numerous procedural issues.

The entire process lasted from 3 p.m. to midnight.

After the session ended, Center Party MP addressed the Riigikogu Deputy Speaker Toomas Kivimägi (Reform), saying that perhaps it would be reasonable for representatives of the government – ministers do not sit at the Riigikogu but regularly appear there for questioning and, as here, when bills are presented – to return another day.

Deputy Riigikogu Speaker Toomas Kivimägi (Reform). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

This would allow the Riigikogu to process the many issues unmolested, Kiik, a former health minister, said.

Tanel Kiik had said that ultimately, the opposition's goal was for the government "to come to its senses and stop the plan to cut family allowances, and review the tax package that taxes low-wage and middle-wage earners and leaves more money for people earning more than the average wage," reiterating claims he had made earlier, that the coalition takes no interest in having a debate on these matters.

Kiik had earlier said that it was unlikely the Riigikogu's agenda for this week could not be approved Monday as it should do per standard procedure.

Tanel Kiik (Center) with Kaja Kallas (Reform). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

In this case, according to the rules, a Riigikogu Council meeting needs to be held, to sound out ways of breaking the "deadlock," he said

Deputy Speaker Kivimägi said that the session had nonetheless been held in a "constructive atmosphere" even as "no decisions were taken."

Riigikogu speaker: Obstruction tactics not wrong in and of themselves

On Tuesday, the Riigikogu convenes at 10 a.m., at which point presenting amendments and other parliamentary work starts.

The speaker, more properly known as the President of the Riigikogu, Lauri Hussar (Eesti 200), said that there was nothing untoward with the obstruction tactics in and of themselves; these are part and parcel of parliamentary debate, and a means by which the opposition can make itself visible.

Lauri Hussar (Eesti 200) is Riigikogu speaker. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

"However, as a counterbalance to this, bills are linked to a vote of confidence so that decisions can be made," he went on.

These votes of confidence can often be in the government itself.

Monday's impasse does not mean the Riigikogu debate on the tax bundle legislation need evaporate; the role of the responsible Riigikogu committee is taken over by the government, though both can still take into account the proposed amendments.

Prime minister: This is not a 'cluster' bill

For her part, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform), said that the legislation needed to be processed at pace given the time-frames and the approaching summer recess – the coalition took office on April 17 and the legislation needs to be processed by July 1.

This is particularly related to the budget constraints, the nature of the proposed tax hikes and tax reforms entail, she said.

Kallas denied the charge of its being a "cluster law."

"This is not a cluster bill, but rather a tax package. /.../ For example, if you have a law amending the Property Law Act, this also affects other legislation. Should all these laws be cast as separate bills? This would be unnecessary, because they are all predicated on the same goal. This is exactly the same thing with taxation," Kallas said Monday.

Reform chief whip: Deadlock sets dangerous precedent

Another opposition MP, Aivar Kokk, told AK that the opposition had wished for a discussion with the coalition on the latter's taxation plans, but that this was not forthcoming.

Speaking at around 9 p.m., Kokk said: "Estonian people are not rich; nearly 75 percent receive below the median monthly wage, so any tax rises and cuts in support for families will serve to make their everyday economic lives tough," Kokk, a former chair of the Riigikogu Finance Committee, went on.

Aivar Kokk, at Monday's protest against the family benefit cuts. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Meanwhile Reform's Riigikogu chief whip Erkki Keldo said it was the opposition who did not want to hold a debate, as demonstrated by their actions in delaying matters.

"While it were stated that there was a desire to have a parliamentary debate and discussion, today's events show that a concrete desire to do this never existed, since even a draft bill was not allowed to be initiated into its first reading at the main chamber," he said, adding that if it had, the relevant minister and committee chair would be quizzed, and deadlines and options for amendments between the first and second readings would follow.

This is all contained in the Riigikogu's rules of procedure, drawn up in good faith, Keldo said, with the presupposition that coalition and opposition want to work together.

This cancelling out of the two sides will harm the legislature and will set a dangerous precedent for the future, Keldo added.

The Riigikogu's board of elders convened during Monday's session to deliberate matters, which they did for around 90 minutes, AK reported.

Erkki Keldo, Reform's chief whip at the Riigikogu. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The government approved and sent to the Riigikogu Monday a raft of taxation amendments which will, among other things, boost VAT and income tax by two percentage points apiece, and abolish the more favorable VAT rate for hotels and accommodation.

In the case of income tax, a uniform tax-free threshold of €700 per month, or €8,400 per year, would be in place, regardless of earnings.

 In addition, several other tax incentives would be abolished.

The legislation to be amended is: The Income Tax Act, the Military Service Act, the Value-Added Tax Act, the Gambling Tax Act and the Alcohol, Tobacco, Fuel and Electricity Excise Act.

The opposition has hit out at what it calls undue haste on the part of the government, and its unwillingness to take into consideration the groups in society which will be affected.

Isamaa leader Helir-Valdor Seeder said that three to four days to analyze the impact of the proposed law changes and to coordinate this analysis represented an "abnormally short" deadline; the explanatory letter and analysis for the "cluster" bill was not received until Sunday night, he added.

"To metamorphosize the entire Estonian tax environment in such a way is completely irresponsible, " Seeder said.

Each MP had two minutes to present their questions and proposals, Tanel Kiik had said earlier on Monday, and this could be done "for as long as it takes."

Earlier on Monday Toompea, seat of the Riigikogu, had been the scene of protests, against the family benefits cuts which the still-born legislation would have incorporated. The current family benefits regime itself only entered into law in January and focused particularly on large families (three or more children).


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mari Peegel, Merili Nael

Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera', interviewer Merilin Pärli, ERR Radio News, interviewer Madis Hindre.

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