By Charmaine A. Tadalan

SENATE plenary deliberation on the proposed P4.1-trillion national budget for 2020 will begin on Nov. 11 as the chamber eyes bicameral approval by the first week of December, Senate leaders said on Monday.

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, moved to extend the availability of the 2019 national budget until Dec. 31 2020 as it approved on third and final reading House Joint Resolution No. 19.

“We’re looking at two weeks of budget deliberation. Hopefully, i-approve on second reading and third reading by Nov. 22,” Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri told reporters in a briefing on Monday.

“With that we’re looking at possibly having the bicam[eral conference committee discussions] by November 25-30.”

Mr. Zubiri said Senator Juan Edgardo M. Angara, chairman of the Finance committee, is scheduled to sponsor the proposed 2020 spending plan on Nov. 11.

Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said in a separate briefing on Monday that the bicameral conference committee might convene in the “first week of December.”

The House of Representatives on Sept. 20 approved House Bill No. 4228, or the proposed General Appropriations Act (GAA) for Fiscal Year 2020, on final reading, the same day it was passed on second reading.

The bill was certified as an urgent measure by President Rodrigo R. Duterte, allowing the chamber to do away with the required three-day interval between second- and third-reading approval.

Lawmakers are moving to assure punctual approval of next year’s spending plan, following an almost four-month delay in enactment of the P3.662-trillion General Appropriations Act (GAA) for 2019 that made overall economic growth slow to 5.5% last semester from 6.3% a year ago and against a 6-7% full-year 2019 target set by the government.

Ang consensus ng ating mga kasamahan sa Senado ay maganda naman: ipapasa the soonest possible time para hindi naman mangyari ‘yung nangyari last 17th Congress (The consensus among senators is… to approve the 2020 budget at the soonest possible time in order to avoid a repetition of what happened in the last 17th Congress),” Mr. Zubiri said.

To recall, the delay resulted from an impasse between the House and the Department of Budget and Management over a change in budgeting framework and later with the Senate over fund realignments that were deemed not in sync with the administration’s priorities. Mr. Duterte signed the proposed P3.757-trillion national budget in mid-April, but vetoed some P95 billion in funds realigned to the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Asked whether the Senate is open to adopting the House version in order to speed up budget approval, Mr. Zubiri replied: “Malabong mangyari ’yun (That will be far-fetched),” explaining that senators have proposed amendments to the spending plan.

Mr. Sotto, however, said he is open to the idea. “Kung maganda ang sinampa sa’min na (If the) House version, magandang budget at maliwanag na budget (that we received does not have items we find questionable), yes, payag ako i-adopt (I will be amenable to adopting the House version),” Mr. Sotto said.

In a separate development, the House, voting 199-0, passed HJR No. 19, which will extend the availability of the 2019 budget for maintenance and other operating expenses and capital outlays until Dec. 31, 2020.

It is a measure that is supported by the Senate. Its counterpart, Senate Joint Resolution No. 7, filed by Mr. Angara, is set to be sponsored in the plenary “this week.”

Kailangan i-extend ang validity ng 2019 GAA dahil nawalan tayo ng six months sa implementation (We need to extend the validity of the 2019 GAA because we lost six months of implementation due to its late enactment),” Mr. Zubiri said.

He noted that under the cash-based budgeting system put in place starting this year, funds left unobligated to projects by yearend will revert to the Treasury.

Aside from late budget enactment, implementation of projects was also stalled by the ban on new public works 45 days ahead of the May 13 midterm legislative and local elections.