San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Proposed Raise Sparks Outrage

In one of their first moves as elected officials, Costa Rica’s newly arrived legislators voted themselves a 72 percent pay raise.

Pointing to salaries in the president’s cabinet and in judicial positions, lawmakers said the move would equalize pay scales across the three branches of government.

They also said “the adjustment will allow legislators to focus on key initiatives for the country” such as those relating to municipal police, funding from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration and the creation of a sports ministry, among others.

But the bill set off fireworks of criticism across the country and eventually led President Laura Chinchilla to say she would veto it.

She said the pay raise – which would increase monthly salaries from ¢2.5 million ($4,700) to ¢4.3 million ($8,000) – would put too much of a burden on the country’s budget. Not only would the proposal require $2,800,000 annually for the legislator’s raise, but it would also trigger a 103 percent increase in pensions for former presidents, amounting to an additional over $500,000 per year.

“These circumstances have led me to decide to veto this law if it arrives for my signature,” she wrote in a letter to the Legislative Assembly.

Her decision effectively ended the current effort to raise salaries, as several members of her party – who were originally the bill’s strongest advocates – began withdrawing support. The bill was shelved on Thursday.

Chinchilla has been facing growing pressure to block the proposed pay raise since the bill passed its first debate on Monday, May 24 in a 35-21 vote.

Monday’s session sparked a citizen protest lasting late into the evening in which demonstrators plastered signs to the windows of the legislative chambers, blocked traffic, and recited chants over loudspeakers. Some tauntingly threw coins at the building.

“The country is amidst a crisis. We don’t think the legislators need such an exaggerated increase,” said 42-year-old Irene Campos of Guadalupe, who stood outside the Assembly building with an oversized pink poster denouncing the legislature’s effort. Her compatriots pointed to the fact that the average salary in Costa Rica is $455 a month, and that the country is experiencing its first national deficit in twenty years.

“Why should legislators award themselves a pay raise?” they asked.

Perhaps the loudest voice in opposition on the Assembly floor on Monday was the Broad Front Party’s sole representative, José M. Villalta.

In his characteristic fiery manner he said, “How can we be concerned about our salary and not be concerned with the unfair salary of thousands upon thousands of people in our country,” he said. “We are sending the worst signal.”

The left-of-center Citizen Action Party (PAC) also spoke against the increase and, when they failed to get the desired vote on Monday, they sent the bill to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) for review to buy time.

“With this bill, each congressman and congresswoman will earn more than four million colones, while one of every three workers in the country … receives the minimum wage,” said María Jeannette Ruíz, a PAC legislator. “These are the salaries we need to review, so that people can receive wages that allow them to meet their basic needs with dignity.”

Another argument against the pay raise was that an objective study had not been conducted in order to determine an appropriate increase.

“If legislators were so worried about their salary and the great injustices against them … before anything else, they should have undertaken a comparative study (of salaries),” said Lisbeth Quesada, former ombudswoman. “The results could then be used to elaborate a remedial plan.”

The bill’s backers proposed to fund the salary increase primarily through the elimination of legislators’ expense accounts and by a reduction in legislators’ equipment, training and building maintenance budgets.

But it became clear to Chinchilla that the bill could not take effect without having a “significant” impact on the budget.

According to a 2007 report by the Spanish daily AVUI, Brazilians receive the highest legislative salary in Latin America, at the equivalent of $8,100 a month. Bolivian legislators rank among the lowest paid with a salary of $1,300 a month.

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