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Cabinet to press on despite numerous thorny issues

File - Prime Minister Tammam Salam, right, heads the ministerial committee at the Grand Serail in Beirut, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: The dispute over extra-budgetary spending poses another challenge to the Cabinet of Prime Minister Tammam Salam, but ministerial sources believe that this and other sticking points can still be overcome and should not paralyze the government.

During a news conference Monday, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil called on Parliament to either approve the 2014 budget or pass an exclusive law allowing Salam’s government to spend over the last approved budget.

Due to the fact that no state budget has been approved since 2005, Cabinets are obligated under the law to adhere to the financial ceiling of the last approved budget.

Facing increased expenses, the government of Najib Mikati solved the issue by approving extra-budgetary spending of LL8.9 trillion (nearly $6 billion) for 2011 without Parliament’s authorization.

The Cabinets of Fouad Siniora resorted to a similar step between 2006 and 2009, spending around $11 billion over budget.

The March 14 coalition argues that the move was necessary since Parliament did not pass any budget between 2006 and 2008 due to the political crisis at the time.

Khalil said he would not follow suit and would not breach the law. He added that in the absence of a legal framework, he had blocked requests by various ministers to approve loans that exceed the budgets allotted to their ministries.

The March 14 coalition views Khalil’s stance as “purely political,” not economic, saying it aims at pressuring the group’s lawmakers to go to Parliament after they opposed legislating while the presidency remains empty, except for urgent issues. Lebanon has been without a president since May 25. MPs from Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform parliamentary bloc are also boycotting Parliament sessions in the absence of a president.

The March 14 alliance has expressed its willingness to attend a session to legalize extra-budgetary spending for the Cabinet only if extra-budgetary spending by Siniora’s Cabinets was also legalized, according to sources from the coalition.

Speaking to The Daily Star, ministerial sources said that Khalil’s remarks during the news conference in which he said that he supported settling the disputes of recent years might be a sign of good intentions. This could lead to holding a Parliament session that would legalize the Cabinet’s extra-budgetary spending as demanded by Khalil, along with the $11 billion spent by Siniora’s Cabinets. Extra-budgetary spending by Mikati’s Cabinet has already been legalized by Parliament.

The sources said they believed that intense talks would take place in the few coming days between the relevant ministers, Salam and Speaker Nabih Berri, in order to reach a solution that would resolve this issue once and for all.

The sources denied that differences over this topic between Khalil and Future Movement ministers would paralyze the government.

As for the thorny decree that would make contract-based Lebanese University professors fulltime employees, the sources said that solving the issue was “possible,” particularly since Salam is working on bridging differences. The sources added that some undeclared demands of those opposing the appointments could also be met.

The decree was on the Cabinet’s agenda last Thursday, but was postponed a week in light of the Kataeb Party’s opposition. The proposal could be postponed again, particularly in light of the fact that ministers from various blocs want to thoroughly examine the decree, arguing that an agreement reached over the matter between Education Minister Elias Bou Saab and former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was not enough.

Kataeb Party ministers are demanding that a party delegation specialized in education affairs meets Bou Saab and examines a list including the names of the professors that would benefit from the decree.

Ministerial sources from the Kataeb Party told The Daily Star that they opposed the fact that the number of contract professors targeted by the decree has increased from 700 to 1,200.

Kataeb Party ministers insist that every contract professor should satisfy the required conditions for him to become a full-timer, the sources said.

The Syrian refugee crisis is also increasingly becoming a point of contention among Cabinet members.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil opposes the establishment of camps inside Lebanon, and has instead called for camps in the no-man’s land between Lebanon and Syria.

He called on Salam to negotiate the idea with the Syrian government.

But Salam argues that negotiation with Damascus would violate the dissociation policy called for since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in March 2011.

Ministerial sources were confident, however, that differences over the refugee crisis would not affect the Cabinet’s work, as the situation is not totally in the hand of Lebanese authorities.

The establishment of camps and financial assistance to Syrian refugees can only take place with the support of the international community, the sources said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 08, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

The dispute over extra-budgetary spending poses another challenge to the Cabinet of Prime Minister Tammam Salam, but ministerial sources believe that this and other sticking points can still be overcome and should not paralyze the government.

During a news conference Monday, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil called on Parliament to either approve the 2014 budget or pass an exclusive law allowing Salam's government to spend over the last approved budget.

The March 14 alliance has expressed its willingness to attend a session to legalize extra-budgetary spending for the Cabinet only if extra-budgetary spending by Siniora's Cabinets was also legalized, according to sources from the coalition.

This could lead to holding a Parliament session that would legalize the Cabinet's extra-budgetary spending as demanded by Khalil, along with the $11 billion spent by Siniora's Cabinets. Extra-budgetary spending by Mikati's Cabinet has already been legalized by Parliament.

The sources denied that differences over this topic between Khalil and Future Movement ministers would paralyze the government.


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