San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

CAFTA, Tax Plan Remain In Legislative Limbo

qWITH their terms up in May, it is becoming increasingly uncertain whether legislators will have sufficient time to vote on the two most controversial bills to face the 2002-2006 Legislative Assembly:  the Permanent Fiscal Reform Package andthe Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). Legislators cut their time even shorter this week by approving a 45-day holiday break for themselves, meaning they have less than four months remaining on the job.

Although 38 legislators sent a letter to President Abel Pacheco last month requesting he send them CAFTA so they could begin discussion immediately, once the President complied, the same number of legislators could not be mustered Dec. 1 to make quorum and begin that discussion.

Quorum was reached the next day, allowing the session to begin, and the International Affairs Committee began discussion of CAFTA Tuesday. The commission will meet two days a week Mondays and Thursdays to discuss the trade agreement and listen to statements from various government officials and representatives from businesses and nongovernmental organizations.

While some analysts question whether legislators will have time to discuss and vote on CAFTA in commission and later in the general assembly before their terms end, Pacheco said Tuesday he thinks it is possible.

But his optimism may fall victim to lack of legislative quorum, which has been a trend lately in the assembly and is often used as a political tactic. Legislators have also failed to show up for discussion of Pacheco s pet project, the tax reform plan the fate of which looks increasingly grim.

Legislative President Gerardo González, of the ruling Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), has admitted that if the tax reform were put to a vote today, it would fail, the daily La República reported. Legislators are instead putting the vote off until after the Feb. 6 elections under the theory that the plan s future depends on who is elected President. According to polls, former President Oscar Arias is the likely victor; he supports the tax plan and could pressure legislators for its approval.

The troubles of the tax plan appear to be tiring even its most ardent supporters. Vice-President Lineth Saborío said this week that Executive Branch leaders just want the assembly to vote on the plan one way or the other so legislators can move on to other bills.

The Executive Branch will define the legislature s agenda until April 30th during the so-called extraordinary sessions that began Dec. 1. So far, the agenda includes the tax plan, CAFTA and CAFTA-related bills. However, the preliminary agenda does not include laws to open to competition the insurance and telecommunication industries that are under a government monopoly, and whose opening is mandatory for CAFTA to take effect. The Executive Branch could submit these bills later.

Legislators will break from Dec. 23 to Feb. 5 the day of the national elections for a new President and legislators, who will take office May 8.

President Abel Pacheco said legislators deserve the extensive break and need to rest for the tasks ahead, though many assembly members have said they want the break not to rest, but to participate more actively in the campaign. At least six are running for President or Vice-President in the elections.

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