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Friday PM December 7th, 2007

Retail gasoline prices fall in Texas…UT limits tuition and fee increases for two years…Houston police officers visiting shopping centers tomorrow afternoon to attract new recruits… Retail gasoline prices are falling this week across Texas. The AAA Texas Gas Price Survey finds the average price of regular-grade, self-service gas fell six cents this week to $2.90 […]


Retail gasoline prices fall in Texas…UT limits tuition and fee increases for two years…Houston police officers visiting shopping centers tomorrow afternoon to attract new recruits…

Retail gasoline prices are falling this week across Texas. The AAA Texas Gas Price Survey finds the average price of regular-grade, self-service gas fell six cents this week to $2.90 per gallon. Nationally, the average price also fell six cents to $3.03 per gallon. Houston’s average is down almost a nickel, to $2.85 per gallon. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says the fall is largely the result of a sharp drop in crude oil prices from record levels near $100 per barrel to as low as $87 per barrel. She also cites flattening demand for the holiday season. Fort Worth has the state’s cheapest gas, averaging $2.85 per gallon. Texarkana has the costliest gas in Texas at $2.97 per gallon.

The University of Texas System Board of Regents is limiting tuition and fee increases at its nine academic campuses for the next two school years. A unanimous resolution caps hikes at 4.95 percent per academic year or $150 per semester, whichever is greater. It comes at a time when presidents of the system’s schools finalize tuition and fee proposals for the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 academic years. Earlier this year, an advisory committee at UT-Austin recommended increases of 7.8 percent for next fall and 6.9 percent for the following one. UT System Regent Robert Rowling says legislative pressure also led to the resolution. Regents were concerned lawmakers would try to rescind the tuition-setting authority given to public university governing boards in 2003.

Houston police officers are setting up at five area shopping centers tomorrow afternoon–and each Saturday this month–to attract and sign up new recruits. Recruiting officers will be set up at Deerbrook Mall, West Oaks Mall, Baybrook Mall, Almeda Mall, Memorial City Mall and Hong Kong Mall.

Housing troubles, a credit crunch and turbulence on Wall Street continue to make people uneasy about the economy. The RBC Cash Index shows consumer confidence clocking in at 65.9 for early December. That hovered close to a reading of 64 for last month, which marked the worst showing since the devastation wrought by the Gulf Coast hurricanes in 2005. Economists say a host of factors were to blame for the still gloomy mind-set of consumers. Those include the collapse of the housing market, which has dragged down home values. Harder-to-get credit has also made it more difficult for some to make big-ticket purchases. Over the past year, consumer confidence has deteriorated sharply, as last December it stood at a solid 86.9. The index is based on the results of the international polling firm Ipsos.

The Labor Department is reporting better than expected unemployment numbers for November. It says employers added a solid 94,000 jobs to their payrolls last month and the unemployment rate held steady for the third straight month at 4.7 percent. At the same time, wages grew briskly. The performance was better than economists were expecting. They were forecasting that the unemployment rate would rise a nudge to 4.8 percent, with employers boosting payrolls by around 70,000. The health of the nation’s job market is a key factor determining whether the economy will survive stresses from the housing collapse and credit crunch. Job and wage growth have served as shock absorbers for the economy, supporting consumer spending, which is a major shaper of overall economic activity.

The House has approved the first increase in federal automobile fuel efficiency requirements in three decades. The legislation would require the automobile industry to boost fuel economy 40 percent–to an average of 35 miles per gallon–within 13 years. The increase is part of an energy bill that also repeals billions of dollars in tax breaks for oil companies and shifts the revenue to promote the use of renewable fuels. Democrats call it “a new direction” in U.S. energy policy, away from fossil fuels. But Republicans say the actions would lead to higher energy prices but do little to produce more domestic oil or natural gas. The White House says the bill raises taxes in a way that would also increase energy costs. And it says the new taxes on oil companies would be unfairly “punitive” to a single industry. The bill faces a certain filibuster in the Senate.

An estimated 25 million people may have something to be thankful for at tax time. The Senate has voted 88-5 to block a looming tax increase, which would cost millions of taxpayers an average $2,000 extra in April. The bill provides a one-year fix for the alternative minimum tax. But, unlike a House bill, the Senate bill does not match the cost of the tax relief with new tax revenues. House Democratic leaders had demanded that the fix be paid for and had added $80 billion in new tax revenues in its bill. Earlier, Republicans stopped the Senate from moving to the House-passed bill. The vote was 48-46 against beginning debate on the House bill, 14 short of the 60 needed. The Senate’s version now heads to the House.

A Pentagon audit finds U.S. commanders in Iraq used sloppy accounting in their handling of a $5.2 billion fund. The fund was spent to train and equip Iraqi security forces. The report, based on an auditor’s visit to Iraq, says the commander involved could not always show that equipment, services and construction were delivered properly. In one example, the Inspector General was only able to follow a paper trail for one percent of nearly $440 million spent. The report also charges that the command couldn’t account for 18 of 31 heavy tracked recovery vehicles, which carry a price tag of more than $10 million. But the report says the command could document more than 95 percent of purchases for food preparation, maintenance, sanitation, freight, lodging and security, which has a value of $1.2 billion.

State Senator John Whitmire says it would be a mistake to sell the Christmas Mountains to a private bidder. The Houston Democrat sent a letter to Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson urging him to take the west Texas property off the market. The Texas General Land Office has received two private bids for the 9,300-acre property near Big Bend National Park. Last month the School Land Board delayed selling the property in order to give the National Park Service three months to meet or exceed the winning bid. Whitmire says Patterson should give the legislature a chance to find a way to fund the land’s public use. Patterson says he doesn’t intend to stop the sale process.

Baker Hughes in Houston says the number of rigs actively exploring for natural gas and oil in the U.S. rose by five this week–to reach 1,828. One year ago the rig count stood at 1,724. Texas rig counts are unchanged.

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