Key voter groups were showered with cash in one of the biggest ever pre-election giveaway budgets, which targeted pensioners, young families, and middle-income earners.
Despite Taoiseach Enda Kenny insisting that he would not repeat the ‘Bertieomics’ vote-buying mistakes of his Fianna Fáil predecessor Bertie Ahern, the opposition accused the Coalition of electoral opportunism in the way it splashed out the €3bn at its disposal.
And a pre-budget clash between Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Environment Minister Alan Kelly saw those seeking a crackdown on soaring rents left out in the cold.
As Mr Noonan boasted that “all workers will gain an extra week’s wages”, opposition parties insisted the give-back was loaded towards the better-off at the expense of the poor.
The Coalition’s pre-election budget plans may come under intense scrutiny as soon as today if the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (IFAC) were to question the scale of the extra spending, the Irish Examiner understands.
There is believed to be disquiet among some analysts that the Government has announced an overly expansionary budget as the election looms.
Analysts have told the Irish Examiner that IFAC could be concerned that the budget has in fact ballooned to be as much as €3bn due to additional spending of €1.5bn.
Only last month, IFAC had said spending plans in the region of €1.2bn and €1.5bn would be acceptable and not pose a risk to the economy.
The budget saw the Coalition move to embrace the grey vote with a €3 a week pension rise and a 75% Christmas bonus.
Young families were wooed with free GP care for under 12s, free pre-school, two weeks’ paternity leave, and a €5 boost to child benefit.
The bulk of the €700m available for tax cuts went on cuts to the deeply unpopular USC, as Mr Kenny ruled out a snap election next month with the Coalition now expected to face voters in late February.
Though €17m was allocated to combat homelessness, hard-pressed tenants have been left in the dark over the future of Mr Kelly’s mooted “rent certainty” plan after Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin twice declined to say if he still supported the measure.
He refused to say if he still backs the plan, if it will form part of his party’s imminent election manifesto, and who “shot it down” after the popular and repeatedly stated potential policy to tackle surging rents failed to make it into Budget 2016.
Mr Noonan insisted the budget was not “risky” or election-driven, while Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath warned the Coalition was repeating the errors that pushed Ireland into economic disaster.
The rich were the big winners, according to Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty, who said the Coalition was putting €189m in the pockets of the top 14% of the country.
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