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Wage hike stuck in funding briar patch

Siniora flanked by March 14 lawmakers at Parliament.

BEIRUT: The Future bloc and its March 14 allies will not attend Thursday’s Parliament session, a Future lawmaker said Wednesday, after parliamentary blocs failed to reach agreement over funding the public sector’s wage hike bill.

“All the March 14 lawmakers will not attend Thursday’s session. In the absence of an understanding on a real balancing between revenues and spending, we cannot agree to the salary scale bill,” Future MP Ammar Houri told The Daily Star.

Also, a Parliament meeting to elect a successor to former President Michel Sleiman failed to be held for the seventh time Wednesday for a lack of quorum, prompting Speaker Nabih Berri to adjourn the session until July 2.

Only 63 lawmakers showed up, well below the 86 of the legislature’s 128 lawmakers required for the session to begin. As in previous sessions, lawmakers from MP Michel Aoun’s bloc, Hezbollah’s bloc and their March 8 allies boycotted the session in a bid to pressure their March 14 rivals into a deal over a consensus candidate for the presidency.

Houri said a lengthy meeting held at Berri’s office in Parliament to narrow differences over the salary scale bill made some progress but did not result in “a real balancing” between spending and revenues from proposed taxes to fund the salary increases estimated to cost the cash-strapped treasury $1.6 billion annually.

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora sounded downbeat about the passing of the wage hike draft law Thursday.

“It is possible that the salary scale bill will not be approved during tomorrow’s session,” Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc, told reporters after the meeting with Berri that was also attended by Education Minister Elias Saab, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, Future MPs Bahia Hariri and Jamal Jarrah, Lebanese Forces MP George Adwan and MP Ibrahim Kanaan from Aoun’s bloc.

“We are committed to passing the salary scale [bill] but on the basis of justice among all sectors, reducing spending and balancing revenues [and spending],” Siniora said.

The Future bloc last week rejected the wage hike bill outright, warning that its endorsement would drive Lebanon into bankruptcy.

Khalil said the meeting at Berri’s office made “tangible progress” in the issue of figures concerning revenues to fund the wage hike bill.

“We are getting very close to [achieving] a balance [between revenues and spending] which in our view has been secured,” he said.

Kanaan said he was waiting for Siniora’s answer on “a final offer” under which teachers would get a six-grade salary raise along with a pay raise to military and administrative personnel.

“We have reached an accurate balancing [between revenues and spending]. This balancing will not from now on allow differences over figures,” Kanaan told a joint news conference with Abu Saab in Parliament.

Abu Saab said the talks at Berri’s office focused mostly on granting teachers a six-grade salary increase, which is opposed by the Future bloc. He said he supported granting teachers a six-grade salary hike. “This a major bone of contention ... It’s better if we agree on a full package deal.” Another contentious issue is whether to raise the value added tax from 10 to 11 percent on all items, or to 15 percent across the board on luxury items.

The Union Coordination Committee kept up the pressure on lawmakers, holding a sit-in outside the Civil Service Council in Verdun ahead of Thursday’s session.

“We won’t accept any tax hike; let them collect money from marine property first,” UCC head Hanna Gharib told the rally. “Three years are enough. We want our rights. That’s all we’re asking for.”

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, the March 14-backed candidate for the presidency, criticized Aoun’s and Hezbollah’s blocs for boycotting sessions to elect a new president. Speaking at his residence in Maarab, Geagea said the vacuum in the presidency amounted to undermining the National Pact on equal power-sharing between Muslims and Christians. He offered to withdraw from the presidency race if this would help elect a president.

Separately, Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb called into question Aoun’s promise to protect former Prime Minister Saad Hariri from political assassination.

He urged the Public Prosecution to seek Aoun’s testimony on his statement concerning Hariri’s security. “Such promises are dangerous and threatening, I was appalled to hear this come from a presidential candidate,” Harb told a news conference.

According to Harb, Aoun’s remarks imply that the FPM leader had knowledge of perpetrators and maybe even an influence over the outcome.

In a television interview Tuesday, Aoun promised to secure Hariri’s safety and security if the latter returned to Lebanon.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 19, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

The Future bloc and its March 14 allies will not attend Thursday's Parliament session, a Future lawmaker said Wednesday, after parliamentary blocs failed to reach agreement over funding the public sector's wage hike bill.

Only 63 lawmakers showed up, well below the 86 of the legislature's 128 lawmakers required for the session to begin. As in previous sessions, lawmakers from MP Michel Aoun's bloc, Hezbollah's bloc and their March 8 allies boycotted the session in a bid to pressure their March 14 rivals into a deal over a consensus candidate for the presidency.

Houri said a lengthy meeting held at Berri's office in Parliament to narrow differences over the salary scale bill made some progress but did not result in "a real balancing" between spending and revenues from proposed taxes to fund the salary increases estimated to cost the cash-strapped treasury $1.6 billion annually.

Khalil said the meeting at Berri's office made "tangible progress" in the issue of figures concerning revenues to fund the wage hike bill.


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