Casino and alcohol bills advance at legislature

The legislative leadership is patting themselves on the back for what they are calling a very productive week. Lawmakers passed six measures and credited a consensus among the various parties in the Asamblea Legislativa for that.

Among the measures is one that levies a series of special taxes on casinos and gambling call centers. This passed Thursday on first reading by a lopsided 43-2 votes in favor. The bill is schedule for a second and final vote Tuesday.

Lawmakers also:

• Approved a new law relating to the sale of alcohol and gave responsibility to the municipalities to determine if the tradition of halting sales on Holy Thursday and Good Friday would continue each year;

• Establish sign language as an official language in Costa Rica;

• Transferred the responsibilities of overseeing the telecommunications market from the environmental ministry to the science ministry, and

• Approved unanimously a tax treaty with Canada for the exchange of taxpayer information.

The casino bill, NO. 17.551, in one form or another has been in the legislature for years. The current version assesses a special 10 percent tax over the net casino income and taxes each gambling table and slot machine. The bill has been promoted as an income for citizen security, but a last-minute amendment Thursday appears to dedicate all the income to the Ministerio de Justicia y Paz for prison infrastructure.

The bill uses the so-called base salary as an index for the tax. As the salary of a specific job category in the Poder Judicial goes up, so does the tax. For each gambling table, a casino operator will be asked to pay about 215,000 colons or some $434 a month. Each slot machine will be taxed about 36,000 colons a month, about $72.

Casino operators will have to submit sworn paperwork to the Ministerio de Hacienda by the 15th of each month and make the appropriate payments to a bank.

The tax appears to be punitive because President Laura Chinchilla has characterized incorrectly casinos as places for prostitution. An amendment Thursday said that none of the taxes paid under this law could be deducted as expenses when casino operators file their annual income tax return.

Casinos have been considered tourist attractions in the past. The new law again states that a casino must be associated with a hotel of four stars or higher. Although some tourists do play in the country’s casinos, the clientele is heavily Costa Rican.

A committee sent the bill to the full legislature in November.

According to the bill, gambling call centers are taxed based on the number of employees.

The bill as written appears to be an invitation for a Sala IV constitutional court case by casino operators. There also is the possibility that the bill might be referred by a lawmaker to the court for an opinion before the vote Tuesday.

All 40 lawmakers present at the time voted in favor of the measure, No. 17.613, that adds a new chapter to the penal code to cover Internet crimes. Some of the possible acts were not crimes under the current code.

The Ministerio de Ciencia y Tecnología was quick to praise legislative action giving it supervision of telecommunications. The bill, No. 17.332, also will change the name of the awkward Ministerio de Ambiente, Energía y Telecomunicaciones.

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