BEIRUT: The Cabinet will meet again Wednesday for a final reading of a draft austerity budget, two ministers said following Tuesday’s marathon session, the 17th in a series of meetings dedicated to examining the country’s 2019 fiscal plan. Wednesday’s session will be followed by a joint news conference by Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil to explain a string of austerity measures to be adopted in the 2019 draft budget to reduce the deficit to 7.6 percent of gross domestic product from 11 percent last year.Reducing the country’s deficit, estimated to have stood at $6.7 billion or 11 percent of GDP in 2018, was a key aim set out at last year’s CEDRE conference, which sought to garner international support to shore up Lebanon’s flagging economy.

“We are done with the budget; tomorrow [Wednesday] there will be a final reading,” Khalil told reporters after a five-hour session chaired by Hariri at the Grand Serail.

“Today was an important landmark by finalizing the budget with encouraging deficit figures and a real reformist path that will have positive repercussions on the economic and financial levels,” Khalil later tweeted.

Speaking to reporters after the session, Information Minister Jamal Jarrah said: “Today we made a final reading [of the draft budget]. We are done with the figures and laws attached to the budget. The Cabinet will meet tomorrow [Wednesday] at 1:30 p.m. to conduct a final reading of the draft budget, [including] the amendments and additions that happened today.”

However, Jarrah made no mention of proposals to cut the salaries of senior public officials, including the president, the prime minister, ministers, MPs and former MPs, a key item that was supposed to be broached by the Cabinet Tuesday.

As in previous sessions, the Cabinet took a series of measures aiming to generate revenues, reduce state spending in order to slash the deficit. The most important of these measures was slapping a 2 percent lump sum tax on imported goods with the aim of protecting national industry.

Jarrah said the Cabinet approved a request from Economy and Trade Minister Mansour Bteich to impose fees to protect national products in accordance with a request from Industry Minister Wael Abu Faour.

In reply to a question from The Daily Star, Bteich said the 2 percent tax on imported goods, except for medications and eco-friendly vehicles, would generate around LL400 billion ($266 million) to the state Treasury annually.

The Cabinet also decided to ask all administrations to take legal actions against the institutions illegally run by foreigners, or those that employ foreign workers who do not have legal work permits, Jarrah said. He added that the Cabinet asked the Finance and Foreign Affairs Ministries to prepare a draft decree to increase fees on consular work abroad. The Cabinet instructed the Foreign Ministry to prepare a draft decree amending the fees of entry visas to Lebanon, taking into account the principle of reciprocity. It asked the Foreign Ministry to prepare a draft decree regulating the department of diplomatic and special passports and amending their fees, Jarrah said.

He added that the Cabinet also decided to ask the Public Works and Transport Ministry to increase the fees of opening the VIP Lounge at Beirut airport to LL500,000 per hour for one person with an additional LL100,000 for every accompanying person who is older than 18 years.

 Speaking to reporters after the session, Bteich said: “We would like to inform all industrialists and production sectors in Lebanon that there has been close cooperation between the Industry Ministry and the association of Lebanese industrialists, in collaboration with the Beirut traders’ association, on several measures to protect and stimulate local production.”

He said the Cabinet had taken several measures in this respect. The first measure is a 2 percent fee on all imports to stimulate national production, except for medications, environmentally friendly vehicles and all machinery used in the economy and production. At the same time, there are 20 Lebanese products that will be given new incentives by increasing the fees on similar imported goods, without affecting the Lebanese consumer. “This will secure revenues for the Treasury and help national production be more effective.”

Abu Faour hailed the Cabinet decision as “a good day” for Lebanon’s industry and production. “The Cabinet has taken an extraordinary strategic decision to impose fees on some products or sectors to protect some Lebanese industrial products or sectors. This fee will contribute significantly to protect the Lebanese industry and reduce the trade balance deficit,” Abu Faour said, standing next to Bteich at the Grand Serail.

The Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc called on the Cabinet to resolve differences among ministers, finalize the draft budget and refer it to Parliament. It also criticized attempts by military veterans Monday to storm the Grand Serail as part of their protests against feared cuts to their retirement benefits. “The government is called upon to settle the existing polarization inside and outside the Cabinet [over the draft budget],” a statement issued after the bloc’s weekly meeting chaired by Sidon MP Bahia Hariri said. The bloc said it hoped that the final version of the budget would be finished soon and referred to Parliament.

“The bloc expressed its satisfaction with the results reached in the Cabinet discussions [on the budget], particularly with regard on measures and policies aiming to reduce the budget deficit and close the doors of waste [of public funds] in various ministries and the need to task the Army and security forces with controlling the illegal crossings and preventing smuggling,” the statement said.

The bloc criticized “pre-emptive and suspicious protests” by military veterans and their attempts to storm the Grand Serail, along with “insults and threats issued by some military retirees to enter the Serail by force and occupy the positions of the ministers during the Cabinet meeting.”

“The premiership’s headquarters and other official Lebanese headquarters are not a free-for-all land for any group that gives itself the right to storm constitutional institutions and encroach on them. These actions are entirely unacceptable,” the statement said.

The Cabinet sessions on the budget have been accompanied by pressure exerted by public sector employees and military veterans, who have taken to the streets in past weeks to protest proposed cuts to their wages and end-of-service benefits as part of the austerity measures.

As the Cabinet convened, employees of a number of government institutions across the country observed the second consecutive day of a strike.

Tuesday’s strike was called for by the League of Public Administration Employees amid concern that austerity measures proposed in the budget would cut workers’ wages and benefits.

Some public school teachers also went on strike for the second day in a row. A number of Lebanese University professors joined the walkout Monday and Tuesday. A representative of the League of Lebanese University Professors suggested Monday evening that the strikes would continue until articles relating to their salaries, pensions and benefits had been removed from the draft budget, local media reported.