By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

Congressmen approved the P4.5-trillion national budget for next year on third and final reading in a special session on Friday after days of squabbling over the speakership.

The lawmakers passed the appropriations bill on the last day of the four-day special session called by President Rodrigo R. Duterte, who earlier asked House leaders not 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 rwading moment 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.

A copy of the budget bill will be sent to the Senate by Oct. 28, appropriations committee chairman Eric G. Yap told reporters.

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 has 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 to elect him as Speaker in a rogue session outside the House building this week.

The House during a special session on Tuesday recalled its second-reading approval of the budget bill after 186 congressmen ratified Mr. Velasco’s election as Speaker.

Meanwhile, Budget officials at Friday’s plenary session said P4.071 trillion or about 99.3% of the country’s 2020 spending plan, had been released to various government agencies as of September this year.

Senator Panfilo M. Lacson earlier warned that potential pork-like allocations could make it into the printed budget bill.

Also on Friday, some congressmen raised concerns about the “dangerous” definition of savings under next year’s spending plan.

This could allow government agencies to get away with the original intent of a project that has yet to be committed for payment, Deputy Minority Leader Carlos T. Zarate, who sought changes in the definition, said.

“These will give the President a blank check by the mere declaration of a state of calamity,” he said in a letter to Mr. Yap. “This will practically rob Congress of its constitutional power over the purse.”

Mr. Zarate has also proposed to prevent the Executive branch from channeling declared savings to intelligence funds.

“This representation believes that aside from the already large amount of intelligence funds appropriated in the 2021 General Appropriations bill, intelligence funds should not be augmented from savings, especially when there are more important matters to be given consideration, like the COVID-19 response,” he said.

Agencies that will get the biggest allocations are the Department of the Interior and Local Government with P246.1 billion, Defense department with P209.1 billion, Health department with P204 billion and Social Welfare department with P171.2 billion.

The Transportation department will get P143.6 billion, Department of Agriculture will get P66.4 billion, Judiciary will have 43.5 billion and Labor department will get P27.5 billion.

The education sector will get the lion’s share of the budget worth P754.4 billion.