Tuesday AM July 24th, 2007

First minimum wage increase set to begin today...Federal housing help for Hurricane Katrina evacuees extended...Verasun Energy buying three ethanol plants from Dallas firm in $725 million deal...

The minimum wage increases today from $5.15 an hour to $5.85—the first of several steps to $7.25 an hour by 2009. It's the first increase in the federal minimum wage in a decade. The new rate is about $12,168 a year before taxes. More than two dozen states and the District of Columbia already have a minimum wage that is higher than the federal one. According to the National Restaurant Association, the last minimum wage increase cost the industry more than 146,000 jobs and put off owners' plans to hire an additional 106,000 employees.

About 11,400 families still getting federal housing help due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will continue getting the aid through June of 2008. Details were announced by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August of 2005, sending several hundred thousand Louisiana evacuees to Texas. Rita slammed southeast Texas the following month. The federal aid is part of HUD's Disaster Voucher Program. The assistance was scheduled to end September 30th. The help is going to families who were receiving federal public housing aid before the hurricanes. In the Houston area, about 3,500 families are receiving such aid. HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson visited Katrina evacuees at a senior housing apartment complex in Houston, where about 80 relocated families are living. Also, Jackson announced the Housing Authority of New Orleans has chosen the University of Texas at Arlington to survey all residents who lived in public housing before Katrina. They'll be asked if they want to return to Louisiana, and if so--Jackson says he'll do everything he can to help them to that.

Ethanol producer Verasun Energy says it's buying three ethanol plants from Dallas-based A.S. Alliances Biofuels for $725 million. The acquisition will be funded with $250 million in cash, $200 million of equity and $275 million in project financing. The plants are located in Albion, Nebraska; Bloomingburg, Ohio, and Linden, Indiana. The Linden facility will begin operating this month, with Albion coming on line in the fourth quarter and Bloomingburg operating by early 2008. A.S. Alliances Biofuels plant workers will become Verasun employees when the sale closes, which is expected in 30 to 45 days. The facilities have a combined annual production capacity of 330 million gallons per year and are each expected to operate at 110 million gallons per year. Verasun currently has 340 million gallons per year of production capacity, with another 330 million gallons per year under construction and development.

Hewlett-Packard says it will buy data center automation software company Opsware for about $1.6 billion. HP says Opsware will fold into its software business after the deal closes. HP expects the purchase to be completed before the end of its fourth fiscal quarter. HP is also buying then-client computing company Neoware in a deal a spokesman says is worth $334 million.

Governments are said to have ordered three million inexpensive computers for schoolchildren through the One Laptop Per Child Project. That is giving the nonprofit group enough volume to begin mass production soon. In announcing the milestone, the organization would not disclose the countries that will be first in line for its $175 laptops when production starts in October. One Laptop Per Child's leaders have said they had interest, if not firm commitments, from several countries, including Libya, Thailand and Uruguay. The machines feature an open-source interface designed to be intuitive for children; a sunlight-readable display; very low power consumption; built-in wireless networking; and a pull cord for recharging by hand. The laptops are being made by Taiwan's Quanta Computer, the world's leading manufacturer of portable computers. The long-term goal for the project is to bring the cost down even further, which is why the effort was originally known as the "$100 laptop.''

More than 500 current and former residents of a west Dallas neighborhood that was home to a vermiculite plant showed up for asbestos screening over the weekend. Parkland Memorial Hospital used a $250,000 state grant to X-ray up to 300 people. But a higher turnout meant officials had to make a list of residents who were turned away. In 2005, the federal government determined that the Texas vermiculite plant could have exposed its employees and neighbors to asbestos. The plant operated from 1953 to 1992. The plant released asbestos fibers, which can increase the risk of lung cancer and other disorders if they enter the lungs. Health officials screened 25 people with chest X-rays in May. Parkland officials say eight of them showed signs of asbestos-related disease. Officials say they hope to have test results from the screenings completed by August.

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