“We didn’t have time to discuss and endorse the draft budget because we had to deal with some 69 items on the agenda. We will hold a special session on Monday for a final reading of the draft budget and a tuning up of figures related to the revenues,” Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh told The Daily Star Friday night following the four-hour Cabinet session chaired by Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Grand Serail.
In addition to the draft budget, Hamadeh said ministers would also discuss a plan prepared by Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil to increase electricity supply, reduce the endemic deficit at EDL and improve electricity bill collection. He added that a final endorsement of the draft budget would take place at a Cabinet session to be chaired by President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace.
Abi Khalil’s plan, designed to revive the energy sector with the aim of saving more than $1 billion annually in electricity production, is apparently aimed at appeasing Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea who has demanded that the Cabinet act to privatize electricity production as a condition for the three LF ministers to vote for the draft budget.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Information Minister Melhem Riachi said the Cabinet approved all items on the agenda, including tenders relating to buying equipment to shore up security at Beirut airport. “There will be a tender to buy equipment for the airport and boost its security,” he said. He did not give the cost of the equipment, but local media put it at $28 million. Riachi said because there were too many items on the agenda, it was decided to hold a special Cabinet session at 4 p.m. Monday to review the draft budget and broach the country’s electricity plan.
“Because it was late to discuss the draft budget item, it was decided to hold an extraordinary session Monday to also discuss the electricity plan, which is essential for reducing big numbers in the budget because the squandering [of public money] in electricity exceeds $1 billion, in addition to boosting production,” he said.
Asked whether last week’s street protests against corruption and proposed taxes to finance the public sector’s salary scale bill were behind the delay in the endorsement of the draft budget, Riachi said: “We never claimed that the budget has been completely finalized. The budget is in need of a final review on Monday and it has nothing to do with street [protests]. We respect the people’s opinion, be they critics or supporters.”
He added that ministers would review Monday all details of the draft budget and make their remarks. “All revenues in the budget can be revised. There is nothing final [in the budget],” he said.
A few thousand Lebanese, mainly civil society activists and supporters of some political parties, rallied at Riad al-Solh Square last Sunday to protest Cabinet plans to impose taxes to cover the cost of long-awaited salary increases for civil servants and public school teachers, estimated at $800 million.
Riachi said the Cabinet also decided to renew rent contracts for some ministries in the Al-Azariyeh building in Beirut’s downtown district. He denied that rents for some ministries in this area were astronomical.
Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos said he would send Saturday a report prepared by the airport equipment’s technical committee to the tenders department concerning security equipment to be installed at Beirut airport.
Speaking to reporters after the session, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil said: “There is nothing new in the reading of the budget. It has been postponed to the next session.”
The Cabinet session came amid threats by civil society groups to stage fresh street protests against corruption, squandering of public money and a series of proposed taxes to finance the salary scale bill.
In response to protesters’ demands, Hariri has pledged to take measures to fight corruption in the public administration and put an end to the squandering of public money. He has also vowed to implement the salary scale bill.
The Cabinet has been holding meetings since last month devoted mainly to budget provisions, allocations for ministries as well as tax-reform proposals. Cabinet deliberations on the draft budget had been overshadowed by a split among lawmakers over financing the salary hike bill that thwarted a Parliament session last week, putting the bill into jeopardy. Once the Cabinet has endorsed the draft budget, it will send it to Parliament for final ratification.
Lebanon has not ratified a state budget since 2005 due to political bickering between rivals, leading to extrabudgetary spending in the billions of dollars. Parliament’s final ratification of the 2017 draft budget is seen as pivotal for bringing state finances under control and bolstering the battered economy, burdened by a more than $74 billion in public debt.
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