Monday PM May 28th, 2007

Texas business coalition pressuring Senators to back immigration reform bill...Survey: high gasoline prices prompting consideration of more fuel-efficient vehicles...War spending bill includes changes in pension laws for American Airlines and Continental Airlines...

Some Texas business leaders are pressuring the state's Republican U.S. Senators to back the immigration reform bill. A coalition of Texas businesses published an open letter to Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn in the Dallas Morning News. Hutchison says she'll try to amend part of the bill that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain four-year, indefinitely renewable "Z'' visas. Those documents would allow them to remain in the U.S. and work and only have to return to their home countries if they want to become legal residents. Her plan would give the immigrant two years to leave after registering with the federal government. Cornyn says he understands the business coalition's position, but says there are aspects of the current bill that he's concerned about. Cornyn says he's committed to improving the legislation to make sure they balance security with the needs of Texas employers.

Many in the U.S. meatpacking industry are backing the immigration reform plan--to secure a more stable and legal work force. Sean McHugh with Swift says the plan contains many key reform elements that the company has been advocating. McHugh says that includes improved worker verification systems, recognition the economy has a growing need for labor and provisions to ensure national security. The bipartisan deal would create a guest worker program and a path to citizenship while tightening border security. Operations at Swift plants in Cactus, Texas, as well as in Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Utah were suspended on December 12th during raids to find illegal immigrants. American Meat Institute President Patrick Boyle says reform legislation being considered in the Senate is a credible, productive first step. But Swift and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union have some concerns. The union says guest worker programs would only turn permanent jobs into temporary ones, create a class of exploited workers and lower workplace standards for all.

The results of an AP-Ipsos poll could be good news for makers of fuel-efficient cars. Nearly half of those surveyed say the near-record gasoline prices are causing "serious hardship.'' That has prompted an increasing number of people to say they're considering buying a car that gets better gas mileage. But there also are signs that a lot of people are clinging to their driving and vacation habits while grudgingly accepting the higher prices at the pump. Slightly fewer people than last year say they're reducing their driving, cutting other expenses or curtailing vacation plans because of higher energy costs. An automotive analyst says fuel costs will have to approach $4 a gallon and stay there for about a year to trigger a shift in consumer buying patterns.

A war spending bill that had been slowed by division over whether troops should remain in Iraq includes changes in pension laws for Fort Worth-based American Airlines and Houston-based Continental Airlines. The bill reduces how much money companies need to set aside each year to fulfill their pension obligations. The airlines had been lobbying for the changes for a while, but partisan disputes over the war tied up the legislation. The House approved the legislation 280-14, one of its last actions before leaving for a little more than weeklong recess for Memorial Day. The airlines stepped up their efforts to snag the pension relief after bankruptcy courts granted United Airlines and U.S. Airways approval to terminate their pension obligations. Lawmakers felt airlines like American and Continental, which weren't filing bankruptcy but were struggling financially, were being treated unfairly.

Space tourism can survive the inevitable crash if companies warn passengers of the risks. That's the advice from executives of one of the leading firms. Alex Tai is chief operating officer of British billionaire Richard Branson's Virginia Galactic space venture. He was among those addressing this year's International Space Development Conference in Dallas. He says that companies that disclose the danger of suborbital flight will win lawsuits that are certain to follow the first disaster. The conference brought together leaders from NASA, the private space industry and international space programs.

A new video produced by Washington state's employment agency aims to recruit farm workers from California, Texas and beyond. The campaign is a proactive step to ward off any potential labor shortage that could leave acres of fruit unpicked this season. The video promotes Washington beautiful scenery, mild summer weather and the money to be made picking apples. It also promotes Washington's short distance from the Mexican border at California and Texas. Washington's labor office is promoting the guest-worker program, as well as a separate federal program that recruits domestic workers from around the country. But whether Washington growers will find available workers in other states remains to be seen. In south Texas, where onions are the most labor-intensive crop, about a thousand workers are needed for two months during harvest. The Texas Workforce Commission has garnered interest from fewer than five percent of the workers needed.

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