The Supreme Court struck a blow to President Oscar Arias’ agenda this week by rejecting a reform to a public works law that had received almost unanimous approval in the Legislative Assembly.
Included in Arias’ list of achievements from his first 100 days in office, the reform seeks to ease requirements for the private financing of public works projects.
According to the ruling, issued by the justices of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), the bill should have been submitted for their review earlier in the legislative process.
Legislators from the leading National Liberation Party (PLN) have blamed their advisors for not informing them the consultation was necessary, while others in the assembly are saying it is a result of Liberation rushing the bill. Regardless of who is to blame, the bill must now be sent back for analysis, possible rewriting and a new vote. The Arias administration was quick to comment.
“It is regrettable that a legislative omission delays one more project that is key for the development of the infrastructure of the country,” Rodrigo Arias, Minister of the Presidency and the President’s brother, said in statement released this week.
The bill seeks to simplify aspects of the public works law, which the Arias administration has said contains too many bureaucratic hoops to jump through for private companies seeking concessions. With crumbling national infrastructure on the minds of most Costa Ricans and blamed as an impediment to more tourism and foreign investment, the bill has been touted as a priority for national development.
Mayí Antillón, the legislator who heads Liberation in the assembly, said the bill would benefit several projects of “national importance,” such as the expansion of the DanielOduberInternationalAirport in the northwestern province of Guanacaste and major highway construction projects nationwide.
“The current law has a series of considerations and restrictions that many businesses are not willing to comply with, and that has limited how many companies can participate (in concession projects),” said Randall Murillo, executive director of the Costa Rican Construction Chamber. “With the reform, projects would have more of a chance of being completed.”
Legislator José Merino, from the Broad Front party, was the only lawmaker to oppose the bill, saying it crosses constitutional boundaries and favors private companies over public interest.
Before it entered first debate, he called for the bill to be sent to the Sala IV for consultation, but legislators from Liberation, the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) and the Libertarian Movement Party rejected this motion. The bill was approved in late July in first debate, 46-1; Merino then found enough support to send the bill to the high court for review.
According to Merino, the law includes changes only the Judicial Branch can approve. He said the bill requires public institutions to submit to an arbitration process if there are problems with a concession, something that until now has been optional for the government.
“An arbitration is not a court of justice,”Merino told The Tico Times, taking a break from discussion in the Legislative Assembly Tuesday. “This is unconstitutional. An arbitration can never be obligatory for the state.”
Merino also objected to the powers the bill grants the National Concessions Council. The bill gives the council final say over ministries when it comes to certain decisions regarding concession work, such as hospitals and prisons, Merino said.
The Sala IV is expected to send the assembly an explanation of its objections next week.
Antillón, who said Merino has shown “reiterated interest” in delaying the bill, blamed the Sala IV setback on bad advice from the assembly’s Technical Services Department, now headed by former PUSC legislator Gloria Valerín, which is in charge of assessing whether bills should be submitted for a consultation with the Sala IV. Valerín attributed the mistake to legislators’ haste.
“It would have been good if the assembly floor, upon hearing Merino’s motion for a consultation, had paid more attention, and perhaps asked the department for a new report on the bill,” Valerín said. “It seems to me that the idea they’ve had is to get everything done very quickly. And how this ends up, probably, is that many things don’t come out right.”
PAC legislator Francisco Molina echoed her words.
“The Executive Branch is pressuring their party (Liberation, which brought Arias to power) to get things done quickly, and this is making them commit errors, as much in procedure as in politics,”Molina said.
Antillón estimated it will take about three weeks for the bill to arrive back on the assembly floor, where it will start back at first debate. She denied her party has been negligent or hasty.
“From here on out, you can be assured that this legislator will consult (the Sala IV) on bills that are obligatory and those that aren’t,’’ she said.
Murillo, the head of the construction chamber, said he remains optimistic about the bill’s prospects.
“I feel that three weeks isn’t going to affect the country,”Murillo said. “What is important is that it is approved.”