A marathon debate among lawmakers on the budget will be wrapped up tomorrow night, after the Legislative Council president yesterday imposed a time cap to end the filibustering.
Jasper Tsang Yok-sing also set a June 4 target for Legco to finish examining the budget bill so that the wheels of government could continue to be oiled by a steady cash flow.
Exercising his powers under the Basic Law, Tsang argued the delays foisted on the legislature by pan-democrats had deprived lawmakers of their right to scrutinise the administration in other areas, such as policy issues.
He dismissed criticism that his purpose was to do the government's bidding, saying he was concerned only about how the 1,192 amendments to the bill were "seriously obstructing" other legislative business.
"As long as the procedures on the bill do not end, lawmakers cannot raise questions to officials at council meetings," he said. "[The filibuster has also prevented Legco] from dealing with several items of legislation popular with lawmakers and the society."
One of the issues up for discussion is a proposal to form an innovation and technology bureau that will cost about HK$1.1 million to set up and up to HK$37 million a year to run. The government will table a resolution to Legco on June 18.
Most of the budget amendments are sponsored by three radicals - People Power's Albert Chan Wai-yip and Raymond Chan Chi-chuen, and the League of Social Democrats' "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung. The trio want the government to introduce universal pensions or give all residents a direct cash handout.
Legco began its debate on April 30, and by yesterday morning, the three had spoken 161 times on the budget, Tsang noted. He had also warned them 47 times for giving repetitive or irrelevant speeches. Tsang had divided the debate into six sessions, with the first focused on items not targeted by the amendments.
But by the end of last Friday - after over 63 hours of debate - lawmakers were only at the third session. Tsang's decision yesterday sped up the procedures, with the fourth session expected to close today. He also slapped an eight-hour limit on each of the last three sessions, meaning the marathon debate will end tomorrow night and voting on the amendments will begin.
The arrangement drew questions from 11 pan-democrats - triggering another hour of arguments. Albert Chan asked if Tsang was responding to officials' warning about a "fiscal cliff" - referring to Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah's comment last week that the government would stop funding Legco, hospitals and universities next month to "pull together" HK$5.1 billion for other work.
Tsang reiterated that his decision was grounded in Article 72 of the Basic Law, which empowered him to "preside over meetings", as well as Article 92 of Legco's rules of procedure, authorising him to decide on matters not provided for in the house rules.
He said lawmakers had the right to seek a judicial review in court, after Leung warned of a legal challenge. A similar challenge failed after Tsang ended last year's budget debate.
Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit said he would continue lobbying for support to change Legco rules, so lawmakers, rather than the president, would have the power to end filibusters.