Thursday AM February 7th, 2008

TxDOT discusses $1.1 billion oversight with state legislature...HISD beats back attempt to overturn certification of November bond election...Federal Reserve notes banks tightening standards on commercial and industrial loans to businesses...

The Texas Department of Transportation is under fire from state legislators for a $1.1 billion oversight from an accounting error that counted some proceeds from bond sales twice. State senators say that lead to TxDOT committing to road projects it couldn't fund. The department announced a funding shortage last November, saying it would cut portions of its budget and freeze some new road projects. Cuts included at 57 percent reduction in the consultant engineering budget, an almost 50 per cent reduction in its 2008 right-of-way budget and a 50 percent reduction in its research budget. TxDOT is keeping purchases to a minimum and instituting a hiring freeze.

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra is praising a Travis County court ruling that denies an attempt to overturn certification of HISD's recent bond election. Bond opponents had challenged an action to have the November 6th bond election declared legal and valid, which would allow the district to sell the bonds. HISD seeks to build 24 new schools and repair and renovate 134 others, including repairing heating and air conditioning systems. The district is spending $90 million to upgrade safety and security at schools and nearly $30 million for science labs for middle and high schools.

About 33 percent of domestic banks have tightened standards on commercial and industrial loans to businesses, according to a Federal Reserve survey of senior loan officers. Banks report raising the cost of credit lines and premiums charged for higher-risk loans. Respondents expect deterioration of liquidity to continue through 2008. About 80 percent have tightened commercial real estate lending in the past three months. About 60 percent report a slowdown in applications for prime residential mortgages and 35 percent report lower demand for consumer loans of all types.

A poll conducted for the BBC World Service finds that in 22 out of 34 countries around the world, about half of those surveyed find that economic globalization, including trade and investment, is growing too quickly. Some 35 percent say globalization is growing too slowly. In the G-7 countries, whose finance ministers are meeting this weekend, an average of 57 percent say globalization is growing too fast. About 64 percent in 27 out of 34 countries believe benefits and burdens are not being fairly shared. The poll of 34,528 citizens was conducted over the past three months.

Macy's says it will cut about 2,300 management jobs. It is consolidating three regional divisions in a bid to reduce costs and boost sales. The Cincinnati-based retailer says it will immediately begin consolidating its Minneapolis-based Macy's North headquarters into its New York-based Macy's East, its St. Louis-based Macy's Midwest organization into its Atlanta-based Macy's South and its Seattle-based Macy's Northwest headquarters into its San Francisco-based Macy's West. Macy's says executives currently in those offices will be considered for jobs elsewhere. Laid-off employees will receive severance benefits and outplacement assistance. At the same time, it plans to add 250 new positions at its stores to better tailor its product offerings to specific regions.

artist's renderingSt. Luke's Clear Lake Hospital is hosting a groundbreaking ceremony this afternoon on Blossom Street in Webster. That marks the beginning of construction on the new facility, which is slated to open in 2010. St. Luke's Episcopal Health System includes St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, founded in 1954, and the Texas Heart Institute, founded in 1962 by Dr. Denton A. Cooley. Other facilities include St. Luke's Community Medical CenterThe Woodlands, St. Luke's Episcopal Health Charities and Kelsey-Seybold Management Services, overseeing 18 area clinic locations. St. Luke's Sugar Land Hospital is under construction, scheduled to open this year.

New Jersey-based NRG Energy, the second-biggest electricity producer in Texas, is joining with BP on a wind power project in west Texas. The first phase of the Sherbino Wind Farm will have 150 megawatts of capacity. BP will operate the turbines and dispatch the power once commercial operations begin later this year. NRG's Padoma Wind Power unit is managing construction. Padoma is in varying stages of development on other wind projects in Texas.

Developers of the FutureGen clean-coal power plant still hope to gain federal funding to build the futuristic facility in central Illinois. But they acknowledge construction doesn't seem possible without the U.S. Energy Department's pledged contribution for the $1.8 billion project. The FutureGen Alliance Board is starting two days of meetings in central Illinois. This week's meetings in Mattoon, Illinois, were scheduled before the Energy Department withdrew from the coal-fired power plant project. The department was expected to pay for about three-quarters of the costs but withdrew its support because of the expense. Mattoon was chosen over three other sites, one in nearby Tuscola and two others in Texas, near Odessa and Jewett.

The Feds have chosen an agency in Houston to help more than one-third of the families still getting housing help over 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Harris County Housing Authority has been given the task of paying rent and providing social services to about 6,000 families in the Houston area. The agreement also involves about 4,000 families in New Orleans and neighboring St. Bernard Parish and about 1,000 more families in 37 states. The Harris County Housing Authority will also build and operate a 33,000-square-foot facility in New Orleans to assist eligible families. About 30,000 families are enrolled in the federal government's disaster housing assistance program. Officials with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development say they chose the agency in Houston because of its track record in helping local evacuees.

A Florida real estate development and acquisitions firm has bought the Home Depot's 11 landscape supply stores. The deal is worth $22 million. Ram Realty Services says it's evaluating the portfolio to determine which sites will be sold to strategic users and which will be redeveloped. Atlanta-based Home Depot said in September that it planned to close the landscape supply stores within two months. It said at the time the closures of the five stores in the Atlanta area and six stores in the Dallas area were part of Home Depot's efforts to focus more resources on its core retail business. Home Depot's first landscape supply store opened in 2002.

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