Wednesday AM April 11th, 2007

Texas Senate committee approves $152 billion state budget...UT Austin to study status of female faculty members...56-story Bank of America Center on Louisiana up for sale...

A key Texas Senate committee has approved a $152 billion state budget. The measure would save almost $9 billion for future use. But the spending plan would still fund a multi-million-dollar legal agreement to bring better health care access to poor children. The Senate Finance Committee vote paves the way for the full chamber to take up the bill later this week. The House adopted its version of the budget last month. The vote comes one day after the state presented the proposed settlement of a 14-year-old lawsuit over children's health care in federal court. Most of the budget comes from sales taxes. Education gets the most, followed by health care. Dollars also would be spent on courts and prisons, including construction of three new prison facilities. The legislature runs through May 28th.


The University of Texas at Austin has established a task force to study the status of female faculty members. The panel also would make recommendations about the female faculty recruitment, compensation and promotion. The status of women in higher education has been a hot topic since comments by former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers two years ago. Summers said genetic gender differences may explain why few women rise to top science jobs. UT Provost Steven Leslie says the number of women receiving doctorates has substantially increased. But he says women remain underrepresented as tenured and tenure-track faculty at UT-Austin and other schools across the country. About 1,000 of UT's 2,800 faculty members are women.


Turnover among the nation's corporate CEOs fell to a 12-month low in March. Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, which tracks such comings and goings, says companies announced 103 CEO departures, down 19 percent from the 127 announced in February. It's the lowest since March of last year, when 87 chief executives left their posts. Despite last month's decline, the 344 first-quarter CEO departures surpassed the 338 announced in the first three months of 2006.


The 56-story Bank of America Center on Louisiana is up for sale by the Hines U.S. Office Value Added Fund, according to the Houston Business Journal. The office tower is 93 percent leased to KPMG, Weil Gotshal & Manges, Deutsche Bank and others.


The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston have broken ground at the University of Texas Research Park for the Center for Advanced Biomedical Imaging Research. The facility is slated to be completed in 2009. The Texas Enterprise Fund is helping fund the six-story building near El Paseo and Cambridge in the Texas Medical Center.


The Town Center Improvement District in The Woodlands has started a convention and visitors bureau to advertise, brand and promote The Woodlands Town Center, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau will promote the town center as a leisure destination for tourists and deal with meeting planners looking for a venue to host meetings, conventions or conferences. It will promote the center as a regional destination for shopping, dining, entertainment and a place for business.


Houston-based ConocoPhillips is giving a grant to Iowa State University to establish an eight-year, $22.5 million research program to produce bio-renewable fuels technologies. ConocoPhillips will make an initial $1.5 million grant this year to support Iowa State researchers, with additional grants of $3 million per year for seven years. Bio-renewable fuels are produced from organic materials, such as ethanol from corn starch and biodiesel from soybean oil.


American Airlines has a new goal--lure more female fliers. The Fort Worth-based airline has begun tweaking its marketing in hopes of wooing more women on its planes. Changes include putting purse hooks on business-class seats and offering promotional packages like "girlfriend getaways.'' Forty-eight percent of American's passengers are female. With the new women's section of its Web site, American is going after women by providing more advice, including pointers for safety and traveling with friends and family. Some spots in American's current advertising campaign are aimed mostly at women. One portrays a customer flying home in time--to be the tooth fairy.


Fruit growers from West Virginia to North Carolina to Texas are expecting the worst as they wait to hear how much crop damage was caused by frigid temperatures over the weekend. While cost estimates from freeze damage aren't expected until later this week, Georgia's agriculture commissioner says he's considering asking for federal aid. One grower says he doesn't expect a good peach out of South Carolina this year. That's bad news for a state that officials say raised 100 million pounds of peaches last year. Growers say that while fruit grown in other states and South America will remain available, those wanting fresh, locally grown fruit could end up paying more for it. Crops of apples, plums, pecans and strawberries have also been destroyed in several states.


Meat processor Swift and Company says its third-quarter net sales fell almost seven percent from last year's quarter. But the Greeley, Colorado-based meatpacker says it's recovering from production declines caused by last December's immigration raids at six of its plants. One of the plants is in the Texas panhandle town of Cactus. Swift President and CEO Sam Rovit says pork production returned to normal in March and beef production was expected to recover by summer. He said the company is also benefiting from cost and operational improvements. Swift reports net sales of just under $2.1 billion.


Fort Worth-based homebuilder D.R. Horton said its second-quarter sales orders fell 37 percent. Horton--which is the nation's largest homebuilder by deliveries--says that decline was led by even steeper falloffs in California and the southwest. But Chairman Donald R. Horton says his company continues to sell more homes than any other builder. Net sales orders for the quarter ended March 31st fell short of 10,000 homes--down from almost 16,000 during the previous year's quarter. The value of the orders dropped to $2.6 billion from $4.4 billion in the previous year's quarter. Net sales orders for the first six months fell to 18,754 homes for $4.9 billion. That's compared to 27,234 homes for 18,754 homes in the same period in fiscal 2006. Cancellation rate for the second quarter was 32 percent. Horton says inventory levels of new and existing homes remain high, as market conditions remain challenging.


You won't wait to wait much longer for ''forever.'' What the U.S. Postal Service is calling the "forever'' stamp goes on sale Thursday. The stamp, which carries an image of the Liberty Bell, will sell for 41 cents. The Postal Service promises it will remain valid for first-class postage regardless of future rate increases. The current 39-cent price for first class mail rises to 41 cents next month. But buyers can use the forever stamps before that if they wish. The stamps will be sold in booklets of 20 and postal officials say there is no limit on purchases.


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