San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

With Congress back in session, bills finally move forward

Lawmakers returned Monday from three weeks of vacation, and their first day back on the job proved to be one of the busiest in the Legislative Assembly in recent months.

Legislators passed two bills – a security bill and a liquor bill – that had long been stalled pending negotiations over tax reform. Lawmakers also will continue discussing tax reform, which National Liberation Party leader Luis Gerardo Villanueva said could be passed in the next four weeks, the daily La Nación reported.

But passage of the divisive tax reform proposal continues to face stiff resistance. On 2012’s first congressional workday, lawmakers from the Libertarian Movement Party, the Access Without Exclusion Party and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) presented 3,000 motions to block the bill’s progress. 

Last week, Legislative Assembly President Juan Carlos Mendoza and Presidency Minister Carlos Ricardo Benavides struck a deal to focus more attention on other pressing issues as well. On Monday, lawmakers approved a $132 million Inter-American Development Bank loan that will help strengthen the Public Security Ministry and add 2,700 new cells at overcrowded prisons (TT, Jan. 13). 

The loan will be distributed in five payments: $8 million in 2012, $44 million in 2013, $59 million in 2014, $14 million in 2015 and $5 million in 2016. Costa Rica will have a five-year grace period before loan payments are due.

“The loan conditions are very advantageous. The last time we checked, the interest rate was only 1.07 percent. After the grace period, [Costa Rica] will have to pay every six months for 25 years,” Citizen Action Party legislator Jeannette Ruiz said. “It was good to see the bill get approved during the first day back at work [after holiday vacations] … [and] it shows that this Congress can reach consensus when it’s in the national interest.”

The second bill that was adopted by consensus on Monday sets new rules for the sale of alcoholic beverages. With 42 votes in favor, the bill gives municipalities control over liquor-license sales, which had previously been limited to one license for every 300 residents. That rule was eliminated. 

Municipal officials also will decide whether to implement a Ley Seca, or dry law, which bans alcohol sales the day before and after presidential elections and during Easter’s Holy Week. 

“We are closing the door on black-market liquor-license sales,” Liberation lawmaker Fabio Molina said. “From now on, restaurant and bar owners won’t even consider turning to the black market since municipalities will be able to sell more licenses without the exorbitant prices that you see in the black market.” 

Molina said that ending the dry law and limits on liquor licenses would help municipalities with high tourism activity to offer more attractive restaurant and bar options for tourists. 

The bill also reduces the minimum distance allowed between bars and schools, from 400 meters to 200 meters. However, President Chinchilla has asked lawmakers to maintain the 400-meter rule.

 The bills will face a second round of voting before heading to Chinchilla’s desk for signing.

Molina criticized PUSC lawmaker Luis Fishman for holding up the assembly’s agenda in recent weeks.

“Luckily, [Fishman] was not there on the first day, so the remaining 56 legislators were able to do some serious work.”

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