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| 21 August, 2017

Lebanon's president set to sign salary scale, tax hike laws

21 August 2017

BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun is expected to sign the public sector’s salary scale and tax hike laws this week, officials said Sunday, clearing the way for the two laws to be published in the Official Gazette, and subsequently put into effect. “I think President Aoun will sign the two laws this week, probably after the two parliamentary sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday,” Economy Minister Raed Khoury, who belongs to the Free Patriotic Movement, told The Daily Star.

Aoun issued a statement over the weekend confirming his intention to sign the two laws endorsed by Parliament last month and refuting media reports to the contrary.

“The presidency’s media office would like to confirm that the president will sign the two mentioned laws within the deadline set by the Constitution and based on the information the president had previously outlined that will achieve Lebanon’s supreme interest and protect the rights of the Lebanese and the state financial safety,” a statement from Aoun’s media office said Saturday.

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The statement was issued in response to what the office said was “contradictory information” circulated by audio, visual and written media outlets and social media casting doubts about Aoun’s final stance on the salary scale bill and the introduction of new taxes to finance it.

Aoun has until Thursday to either sign the two laws or return them to Parliament for further review as demanded by the private sector, the Association of Banks in Lebanon and the Kataeb Party.

Aoun’s signature is deemed vital for the timely publication of the two laws in the Official Gazette and their implementation after being inked by Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

During a roundtable economic conference held at Baabda Palace on Aug. 14 to iron out differences over the salary pay bill and a string of taxes to finance the bill estimated to cost more than $800 million annually, Aoun demanded amendments to tackle what he called “gaps” in the two laws. Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil and Metn MP Ibrahim Kanaan from the FPM were tasked with making proposals to introduce amendments to tackle the gaps in the two laws, particularly those related to the new taxes. Bankers and business leaders who attended the Baabda conference warned the battered economy, already burdened by more than $75 billion in public debt and endemic budget deficits, would further suffer if the new taxes and salary scale were imposed.

Nabatieh MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s 13-member bloc in Parliament, said the salary increases benefiting thousands of civil servants, including public and private school teachers and the military, would be implemented.

“This issue [salary scale bill] is taking its normal course toward being put into effect. All the objections and remarks on the salary scale law are remarks in form that can be tackled with draft proposals at a later stage. But the salary scale will be signed [by Aoun] and will be issued [in the Official Gazette] and take its course toward implementation,” Raad told a Hezbollah memorial ceremony in south Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Parliament is expected to witness a heated debate during a two-day general session designed to quiz the government over its performance in the eight months it has been in office, parliamentary sources said Sunday.

“A number of lawmakers will use the occasion to lash out at the government for failing to tackle urgent political and socio-economic issues, particularly its unfulfilled pledge to improve electricity supply in the summer,” a parliamentary source told The Daily Star.

Other hot issues that will figure high during the parliamentary sessions are the controversial visits of three ministers to Syria despite the government’s disapproval and in defiance of Lebanon’s declared “disassociation” policy toward the 6-year-old conflict in Syria, the source said.

Berri has called for Parliament to meet in day and night sessions Tuesday and Wednesday for a general debate during which lawmakers are expected to raise urgent issues, including questioning or criticizing the government’s performance since it was formed last December.

The Parliament sessions come as Cabinet unity has been shaken by the disputed visits to Syria last week of the ministers Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and the Marada Movement to attend the Damascus International Fair and hold talks with their counterparts on boosting trade and economic ties between the two countries. Hariri, who strongly opposes any direct contacts with the Syrian regime, has said that ministers visiting Syria would do so without the official backing of the government.

The parliamentary sessions also come as the long-lasting electricity problem was thrown back to square one Thursday after the Cabinet scrapped previous bids to lease power barges to improve power supply in the summer and demanded a fresh tender with new conditions.

Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil, who belongs to the FPM, was tasked with preparing new tender documents to lease power-generating plants with an 800-megawatt capacity within three to six months. The Cabinet move set back Abi Khalil’s much-trumpeted electricity reform plan, which calls for the lease of power-generating barges to end Lebanon’s chronic power rationing.

© Copyright The Daily Star 2017.