BEIRUT: Parliament’s joint committees decided to hold further talks next week on a draft law to raise public sector salaries after failing Friday to agree over revenues and proposed taxes that would cover the increases estimated to cost the government over $1.6 billion annually.
The committees’ meeting, attended by 37 lawmakers and chaired by Deputy Speaker Farid Makari, came against the backdrop of a threat of escalatory measures by the Union Coordination Committee if the salary scale bill was not approved soon. The UCC represents public sector employees and teachers.
With the presence of Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil and Education Minister Elias Bou Saab, lawmakers from the March 8 and March 14 parties discussed for more than five hours articles pertaining to finding sources to finance the salary increases, and they are expected to continue Monday.
Khalil said all parliamentary blocs were unanimous in agreeing that the public sector salary scale was a rightful demand that must be met soon.
“We did not hear during the discussions different viewpoints. It was made clear that the salary scale is a right that should be approved as soon as possible,” Khalil told a joint news conference with MP Ibrahim Kanaan after the meeting.
However, Khalil, who belongs to Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc, stressed the need for all parties to search for financial resources to cover the overall cost of the salary scale, which he estimated to be LL2,765 billion ($1.843 billion).
“It’s not a problem of figures, but a case of choices that need to be answered. There was a discussion about sources of financing,” he said.
Kanaan, head of the parliamentary Finance and Budget Committee, said revenues were important to finance the salary scale.
“There were two draft laws: one for the salary scale and the other for financing it,” he said. He added that progress was made in articles pertaining to finding revenues through proposed taxes.
Despite agreement among lawmakers that the salary scale is a right for public sector employees and teachers, sharp differences emerged during the meeting mainly between Khalil and Kanaan over the revenue figures, to the extent that journalists sitting in a nearby room heard shouting in the Parliament hall.
The disagreement erupted when discussion began over the state’s estimated revenues from dues on building licenses. The government’s draft law estimated the revenues at LL700 billion, while a subcommittee headed by Kanaan put it at LL600 billion, and Khalil estimated LL75 billion.
When Kanaan told Khalil that the LL75 billion was not correct, the latter responded: “Am I a liar? You are impolite.”
The spat between Kanaan and Khalil led to shouting and commotion that lasted about half an hour.
At one point, Hezbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah and MP Alan Aoun stepped out of the Parliament hall and met briefly in a room, after which Aoun asked Kanaan to remain calm and avoid a problem with Khalil.
MPs from Berri’s bloc also intervened to pacify the situation, which eventually led to a joint news conference held by Khalil and Kanaan.
Meanwhile, Hanna Gharib, head of the UCC, warned of an open-ended strike should Parliament fail to approve the salary scale proposal.
“Any postponement to approve the salary scale will lead to further escalation, including a strike, a sit-in, even an open-ended strike and a boycott of official exams,” Gharib told reporters after meeting Makari.
Civil servants and teachers staged a general strike Wednesday in protest of Parliament’s delay in passing the salary scale bill.