BEIRUT: The salaries of public sector employees are hanging in the balance as Future Movement lawmakers and Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil bicker over extra-budgetary spending with no end in sight.
Future MPs accused Khalil of breaking the law, blaming him for the deadlock in paying public sector employees and arguing that the treasury had the necessary funds.
“The minister says there are not enough funds in the treasury to pay civil servants their salaries. The end of the Ramadan month is nearing and people want to celebrate Eid Fitr. This is a calamity,” MP Ghazi Youssef told reporters during a news conference in Parliament.
“The minister is saying that some 200,000 employees will not get their salaries at the end of the month.”
Khalil has refused to authorize extra-budgetary spending for civil servants unless the draft state budget for 2014 he prepared was approved. His decision raised fears that public sector employees would not be paid by the end of the month.
He has argued that he could only finance ministries in need of loans within a legal framework, arguing that the only means to resolve the issue is if Parliament passes a special law or if the Cabinet approves the 2014 draft state budget.
Due to the fact that no state budget has been approved since 2005, Cabinets are obligated by law to adhere to the financial ceiling of the last approved budget. Former Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government resolved the issue by approving extra-budgetary spending of LL8.9 trillion (nearly $6 billion) for 2011.
The Cabinets of Fouad Siniora resorted to taking a similar measure between 2006 and 2009, spending around $11 billion more than the budget officially allowed.
During the news conference, Youssef said the funds allocated for the salaries of civil servants – based on the 2005 state budget in addition to a wage hike approved in 2011 – were an estimated LL2.66 trillion, which he said was available.
The government has paid civil servants their salaries for the past seven months, Youssef said.
“The remaining balance should then be LL623 billion, which should be enough for an additional two months. Therefore, no one should threaten us and say there is not enough money.”
“Failure to pay salaries is solely the responsibility of the minister because the funds are supposed to be there,” he added.
Youssef also claimed that Khalil had used some of the funds earmarked for salaries to finance the wage hike for 2014.
“Khalil broke the law and spent from a pool of money he wasn’t supposed to instead of asking for a loan,” he said.
The March 14 alliance – particularly the Future Movement – expressed its willingness to attend a session to legalize extra-budgetary spending on the condition that the spending conducted under Siniora’s term was retroactively legalized.
Talks between the Future Movement and Speaker Nabih Berri were fruitless, scuttling a legislative session that would have seen lawmakers approve a law to resolve the dispute.
Khalil, from Berri’s bloc, hit back at the Future lawmakers, saying MPs should head to Parliament to vote on a law and resolve the public sector salary issue, saying the news conference would not change his mind.
“They are talking about a lot of issues but what is needed is to legalize previous violations. The only road to do so is in line with the Constitution and not via a news conference,” Khalil said in a statement.
“Instead of telling the public about some numbers in an attempt to overshadow the truth, they should head to Parliament to approve a law that would allow extra-budgetary spending.”
During the conference Friday afternoon, Future MP Jamal Jarrah questioned the motivation behind Khalil’s “awakening,” saying over-spending has been illegal since 2005.
“Over-spending has been done since 2005 given the lack of an approved state budget. So how come he is now committing to working in line with the Constitution? Extra-budgetary spending has been approved in previous Cabinets which the minister himself was part of.”
Jarrah said that his party was willing to work “day and night with all rival groups to resolve the financial situation.”
“We affirm the need to approve a state budget for 2014 ... so we can end this dispute once and for all.”