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Senate about to finish budget hearings for Dec. approval

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Senate of the Philippines
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THE SENATE is likely to pass next year’s P4.5-trillion budget on time, after a leadership squabble at the House of Representatives nearly derailed debates on the spending plan aimed at helping the economy recover from a coronavirus pandemic, according to the head of the finance committee.

About 90% of government agencies’ proposed budgets have been tackled, Senator Juan Edgardo M. Angara, committee chairman, told DZRH radio on Sunday.

The committee has yet to look at the budgets of the Environment, Tourism and Human Settlements departments and Commission on Elections, he added.

Congress went on a break last week, but senators continue to hold budget hearings to fast-track the legislative process. It targets to approve the bill by the first week of December so President Rodrigo R. Duterte could sign it into law by year-end, according to Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri.

Congressmen approved the appropriations bill on third and final reading in a special session on Friday after days of squabbling over the speakership.

The lawmakers passed the measure on the last day of the four-day special session called by President Rodrigo R. Duterte, who earlier asked House leaders to prioritize the measure amid a coronavirus pandemic.

The President had certified the bill as urgent to allow congressmen to fast-track the legislative process. Lawmakers approved the bill on third and final reading moments after passing it on second reading.

The measure allotted P1.1 trillion —  about a quarter of the country’s spending plan — to infrastructure projects to fuel economic recovery amid a coronavirus pandemic.

The Philippine economy shrank by a record 16.5% in the second quarter and is expected to slump by 4.5% to 6.6% this year.

Mr. Angara said Party-list Rep. Eric G. Yap, who heads the House appropriations committee, had committed to send a copy of the bill by Oct. 28.

The house nearly missed its October target to pass the bill after sessions were suspended amid a leadership squabble between Speaker Lord Allan Jay Q. Velasco and his predecessor, Taguig Rep. Alan Peter S. Cayetano.

Mr. Velasco had planned to submit the budget bill on Nov. 5, but moved it earlier after consulting with Senate leaders.

The House is on a month-long session break until Nov. 16, while the Senate will resume on Nov. 9 to have more time for plenary budget debates.

“Many people need the government’s help during this COVID-19 pandemic,” Mr. Angara said in Filipino. “The economy runs erratically and people expect the government to spend for them.” 

A budget delay is expected to further hurt the economy, which has been struggling to recover from the global health crisis.

Senators earlier said the Philippine government would probably operate under a re-enacted budget again next year amid the House leadership squabble.

Failure to pass the budget bill on time means the government must use the same amount of funds provided under the P4.1-trillion appropriations for this year during the first quarter of next year.

It also means new government projects will be delayed and some key services will be affected until the new budget measure is signed.

The House had approved the budget bill on second reading after ousted Speaker Alan Peter S. Cayetano, who had rejected a term-sharing deal he agreed to last year, moved to terminate debates and sessions until Nov. 16.

He created a small committee that would consolidate proposed changes during the break. Congress was supposed to suspend sessions on Oct. 17 and resume on Nov. 16 under its legislative calendar.

The suspension did not prevent supporters of Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Q. Velasco from electing him as Speaker in a rogue session outside the House building last week. — Charmaine A. Tadalan

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