ECONOMY

Several bills await passage before Parliament adjourns

With elections coming sooner than expected, on March 7, and a raft of bills waiting to be voted on, MPs will likely have to camp inside the Parliament building until February 6, the date the parliamentary session will end, in order to pass them all. And most will probably not have the time to read the contents. Included among the bills already tabled are the so-called Development Law, providing incentives to foreign and local investors, a bill concerning social security and recipients who switch pension funds due to a career move, a bill on privately financed public projects, a bill introducing changes in private insurance oversight, as well as a Transport Ministry bill on the setting up and operation of transit goods warehousing. And these are just the bills affecting the economy. Also waiting are bills submitted by the ministries of Interior and Health. Concession agreements After a three-year delay and conflict between the Finance and Public Works ministries, the government yesterday tabled the draft bill on privately financed public projects (PFI), or concession agreements. An initial version of the bill was withdrawn two years ago via the intervention of Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who considered it too favorable to contractors. The bill aims at speeding up procedures and harmonizing Greek with EU law; one of the changes it introduces requires candidates to prove their financial means in advance. Construction sector sources said the speeding up of PFI projects depends on other factors, such as the introduction of new accounting standards and bank participation. It was the lack of such a bill that accounted for serious delays in projects such as the Attiki Odos. A quick reading of the bill shows that the Economy Ministry has succeeded in getting the upper hand from the Environment and Public Works Ministry. A key advisory committee and a special secretariat on concession agreements will both be part of the Economy Ministry. Oversight authorities Another Economy Ministry bill introduces two new oversight authorities, one on private insurance and another on games of chance and casinos. The latter is an independent authority, which means that the government will no longer intervene in the operation of casinos. In the spirit of the old tradition of throwing together unrelated provisions into one single piece of legislation, the bill absolves cooperatives that sell property in order to pay debts to the Agricultural Bank or the State from paying surplus value tax. The bill also calls for the optional application of International Accounting Standards (IAS) from January 1, 2004. Introducing IAS The obligatory application of IAS will start next year. Economy and Finance Minister Nikos Christodoulakis said that many big companies listed on the Athens Stock Exchange are ready to apply IAS regulations from this year and will be allowed to do so. The IAS changes are expected to make it more difficult for companies to hide losses and, in general, are expected to hurt profits. Initially, the government had considered making IAS obligatory from this year, but was forced to back down.