Monday AM March 24th, 2008

Proposed college tuition hikes are more than five percent cap set last year…Comcast begins offering bundled commercial telephone service for businesses…Western Union closes money-transfer office in Dallas…

Proposed tuition hikes by the University of Texas System would have students paying more than the five percent increase cap officials set last year. While averages across all majors at a campus can’t exceed five percent, increases for individual programs could be much higher. For example, UT-Austin has proposed raising tuition and fees for architecture students by 7.5 percent next year. Engineering students would see a more modest four percent increase. The UT System Board of Regents this week is expected to consider the tuition changes for the next two school years. Until 2003, the legislature decided how much public universities could charge. But then it let campuses set their own rates, as it allowed per-student funding from the state to lag. Since then tuition and fees at public universities across Texas have risen 40 percent on average.

With oil prices more than $100 a barrel, producers nationwide are suddenly taking a second look at idle, decades-old wells. When oil sold for one-fifth the price or less, the old wells were considered tapped out and unprofitable. California’s oil production increased by 2.5 million barrels last year for the first time in years. The story is the same across the nation. In Texas, one of the largest oil-producing states, producers filed more than 5,000 applications to unplug or upgrade old wells or drill new ones last year. Independent producers and major conglomerates alike are reinvesting millions in these mature wells, using expensive new technology and drilling techniques to drain every last drop out of fields long past their prime. Often, these old fields sit smack in the middle of suburbia. Environmentalists and homeowners argue that because many of the companies are expanding pre-existing wells, many that were idled or in disrepair, the danger for accidents and leaks is higher. They also worry about damage to the environment and instability in the ground.

Comcast has begun offering a bundled commercial telephone service for businesses. The cable company is offering the same $99-a-month introductory price for bundled phone, video and Internet services that it offers to new residential customers, according to Comcast’s Joe Rodriguez.

“There is a pent-up demand from small businesses to have a company provide three services on one bill with a lot of features tied to it. The package on the Internet side, it’s not just high-speed Internet services. They get a suite of Microsoft communications services along with it–McAfee Virus Scan, as an example. There is some Web storage available to it, so it’s designed for companies that have a need for not only high-speed, but some IT specialties tied to their services. That’s really what the package has been designed for.”

Rodriguez says the bundled commercial telephone service is for small- and mid-sized businesses.

“It’s designed for companies that have a need for business class services in a small business environment. And the demand has been unbelievably great. It’s what we thought it would be. We actually tripled our sales staff here in Houston since we launched the product. I believe small business owners today do have a need for technology. They do have a need for some hosting services.”

After the introductory period, prices will increase, depending on contracts and types of services.

Western Union is closing its money-transfer offices in Dallas, as well as in Missouri. The move eliminates 650 union jobs involving call centers and administration. Tasks are being moved to remaining Western Union offices or will be outsourced by the end of the year.

A Los Angeles-based investment group has bought the 13-story Binz Building downtown, according to the Houston Chronicle. Royal Investors Group has also purchased an eight-level parking garage on Texas Avenue.

Los Angeles-based Post Investment Group and a New York-based private equity firm have purchased the 2,496-unit Broadway Square Apartments, on Broadway near Hobby Airport, for an undisclosed price.

The subprime mortgage crisis has yielded at least one benefit for states. Mortgage-related investments have become so cheap that they are attracting some pension funds to buy in. Retirement systems in South Carolina and Pennsylvania are nibbling at the securities, betting that they have been beaten down so much that the ones with good credit ratings could yield strong returns later. South Carolina is looking to buy $100 million of mortgage-related investments for its $30 billion state pension fund. Pennsylvania, which made money off those securities’ troubles in its hedge funds last year, is also betting that they can offer long-term returns. But the buying this time is very tentative, and may not be an indication of a broader turnaround in these securities. While banks and other companies that created and sold an array of mortgage-related securities need cash now, pension funds have Cash–and long-term investment views.

Moving back home isn’t just for Generation Xers anymore. Financial experts are noticing that more and more older people are finding themselves supporting their children, who can be in their 40s or 50s. Divorces, the slumping economy and credit crunch are the culprits. A financial planner in Ohio says plenty of well-meaning parents are delaying retirement or scaling back their own dreams because they’re helping their adult children. A 52-year-old Wisconsin woman who lost her job is now back in the bedroom she grew up in. Her 80-year-old mother says her other two children are also welcome to move back home if they want to. It’s not uncommon for younger people to head back to their parents’ nest. The retiree-advocacy group AARP says one-fourth of Generation Xers, who are 28 to 39 years old, receive financial help from family and friends.

ConocoPhillips Chairman and CEO Jim Mulva last year had a pay package valued at about $15.1 million. That’s slightly higher than his compensation one year earlier. Mulva has led the board of Houston-based ConocoPhillips since October 2004. His salary details are in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mulva’s 2006 compensation was $15 million. The Associated Press calculations of total pay include an executive’s salary, bonus, incentives, perks, above-market returns on deferred compensation and the estimated value of stock options and awards granted during the year. The calculations don’t include changes in the present value of pension benefits, and they sometimes differ from the totals companies list in the summary compensation table of proxy statements filed with the SEC.

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