More transparency would help the budget crisis

President Laura Chinchilla showed up at the basilica in Cartago Monday night just in time for the 7 p.m. news. She started walking at 4 p.m., according to Casa Presidencial.

There was no report on what petition the president brought to the Virgen de los Ángeles, but a good guess would be help in getting her $1 billion tax plan through the legislature. Costa Rica, like the United States, is deeply in the red and borrowing in massive quantities to keep afloat.

Clearly both Costa Rica and the United States are living far beyond their means, and some tough decisions will have to be made to maintain financial stability. Sucking $1 billion a year from the Costa Rican economy with new taxes probably is self-defeating.

Here are some suggestions that might help:

1. Every payment made by the central government should be listed and made public on a special Web site. Some counties in the United States are required by law to do this, and some alert citizens closely follow the list.

So when a government official takes his secretary on a trip to México, the expense report eventually will be made public. When a minister orders an expensive bottle of wine at a government lunch and then charges it to the public, that, too, will show up.

And when the government awards a $6,000-a-
month pension to a magistrate who was in office less than a year, the public will know quickly.

Making public certain key records, such as salary payments, expense payments and payments on contracts and purchases, should have a beneficial effect on government operations and provide what officials also say they have: transparency.

2. Property tax records should be open to public inspection. Taxes should be listed, and the record should show if they have been paid. This is Government 101. Individuals are more likely to pay property tax when they can see others are doing the same. In addition, tax assessments and the subsequent tax are notoriously inconsistent. Sometimes the inconsistency is the result of having political buddies. Open records exposes these flaws. And citizens like to inform on their neighbors.

The government would have a lot fewer headaches enforcing the luxury tax law if citizens could see who has reported the value of their home and who had paid the tax.

3. Administrators at public agencies should obtain monthly reports on the Internet sites visited by their employees. Such records can be obtained from the various computer servers. Right now many public employees shirk their work and spend the day with Facebook, YouTube and a host of other social sites. They should be fired unless they can demonstrate a good reason.

4. President Chinchilla instituted a hiring freeze in an effort to win support for her tax plans.That freeze should be reconsidered, in part, because it prevents the tax collectors from hiring more inspectors. The tax collectors who work at the Dirección General de Tributación now seem to be challenged when seeking sales tax violations.

Any person on the street can see merchants ducking sales tax every day, but tax inspectors seem to be blind to these practices.

5. The Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, the agency that runs the clinics and hospitals, is in trouble because income is lower than expenses. Yet many private firms owe vast sums of money for the social security payments. This is over and above the estimated $2 billion that the central government owes the Caja. Caja collectors should move in when a company falls behind by a small amount, perhaps several thousand dollars. Business people know that small debts must be collected quickly because large debts frequently are uncollectable. One hotel is standing vacant now, in part, because the management owes the Caja $300,000.

6. Does Costa Rica really need 22 ministries? The latest is a ministry of sports. Even individuals conversant in Costa Rican politics frequently have no idea what some of these ministries do, if anything.

7. No central administration will be able to sell off national parks or reserves. The act would generate a public uproar. But there are many public properties without any clear use. And there are many public buildings underutilized with whole floors empty. And the former Banco Anglo building on Avenida Central has been turned over to the Academia Costarricense de la Lengua. A full inventory of pubic holdings certainly will show many that can be divested and the proceeds paid on the public debt.

8. Curiously, Costa Rican politicians shy away from extractive industries. The vocal environmentalists oppose any project proposed by a North American corporation. There is gold to be mined and petroleum to be sought. But Casa Presidencial wants no part of this. In fact, Monday officials said they would put a moratorium on petroleum exploration. Each one of these industries pay a handsome tax on what it produces. But Casa Presidencial finds it more political to tax its citizens.

9. There also has been no discussion about dumping some of the government monopolies. The Refinadora Costarricense de Petróleo would bring a good price. After all, it has a monopoly on importing and producing motor fuels and cooking gas. And the railroad is a diamond in the rough.

Latin Americans, including Costa Ricans, do not like to make clearly public information public. That can be seen in the court system when much of the action takes place out of the public view, and court records are only open to those directly involved in the case. So making tax payments public might ruffle some feathers.

But as a New Mexico newspaper editor says: Democracy dies in the dark. And an informed public is the best bulwark against a repressive government.

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