Thursday AM March 27th, 2008

Fee increases approved for UT system's nine campuses…Comcast and Time Warner Cable reportedly discussing plan to fund new wireless Internet venture…Colombian Oil and Gas Association inviting foreign oil investment…

The cost of education in the University of Texas system is going up again. The UT System Board of Regents on Wednesday approved fee increases for the two-year period starting next fall at the system’s nine academic campuses. The hikes will vary from less than five percent a year at UT Austin and others to more than nine percent a year at UT Brownsville and UT Permian Basin. The board last year adopted an annual increase limit of 4.95 percent or $150, whichever is greater. Six campuses were allowed to exceed that limit by exempting student-approved fees. The costliest semester within the system will be at UT Dallas, where tuition and fees will total almost $5,000 after increases of 4.95 percent each year. The most inexpensive semester will be $2,761 at UT Pan American with increases of 6.09 percent this year and 5.74 percent in 2009. At the system’s flagship campus, UT Austin, tuition and fees will total $4,266 this fall and $4,477 in 2009 after a 4.95 percent increase each year.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Comcast and Time Warner Cable are discussing a plan to fund a new wireless Internet venture that would be run by Sprint Nextel and Clearwire. The partnership would create a nationwide network using wimax technology, which promises faster wireless Web connection speeds for laptops and cell phones than mobile operators’ third-generation
networks. Citing unnamed people familiar with the matter, the Journal reports that Philadelphia-based Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, would put up as much as $1 billion, while number two Time Warner Cable would add $500 million. The Journal says another cable operator, bright house networks, would contribute $100 million to $200 million.

Demand for talent at the top of the employment market continues to expand, according to ExecuNet’s Recruiter Confidence Index. The monthly survey of executive recruiters indicates 52 percent are confident the executive employment market will improve during the next six months. Nearly three in four recruiters expect at least a ten percent increase in search assignments during this period of time. Meanwhile, a separate ExecuNet survey indicates that 73 percent of those search firm consultants and human resources executives polled believe there’s currently a shortage of qualified executive talent in the market. The firm says after four consecutive years of double-digit job growth, the laws of supply and demand continue to work in favor of the job candidate.

The Colombian Oil and Gas Association is hosting its 2008 Road Show at Marriott West Loop today, as Colombia offers up 43 blocks of oil exploration and production next fall. Colombia’s minister of energy and mines will tout Colombia’s stable economy and improving security as he promotes the blocks. Hernan Marinez Torres is contrasting his country with others in South America that are less enthusiastic about foreign investment.

Enron shareholders eligible for some of a $7.2 billion class-action lawsuit settlement can benefit from forums set for tonight and Saturday night at the downtown Four Seasons Hotel. Former shareholders can get help filling out required proof-of-claim forms, which are due April 30th. Those included must have acquired Enron-related securities between September 9th, 1997 and December 2nd, 2001, when Enron declared bankruptcy.

Tax Freedom Day falls on April 23rd this year, according to the Tax Foundation’s annual calculations. That’s three days earlier than in 2007. Stimulus rebates and a projection of slow growth in 2008 are credited. Americans will work 74 days in 2008 for federal taxes and 39 more days for state and local taxes. The day is calculated on tax collections divided by the nation’s income. In 2000, Tax Freedom Day was celebrated May 3rd—the latest date over. Taxes this year account for 30.8 percent of income.

A McDermott International subsidiary has been awarded a contract by Chevron’s Thailand Exploration and Production division, according to the Houston Business Journal. J. Ray McDermott is providing engineering, procurement, construction and installation for the project in the Gulf of Thailand. Platform work includes a central processing platform, associated living quarters, flare tripod and three bridges. Installation is set for the end of 2010.

Census officials say technology problems could add as much as $2 billion to the cost of the 2010 census and jeopardize the accuracy of the nation’s most important survey. They’re considering a return to using paper and pencil, since some of the door-to-door census takers have been unable to figure out their fancy new handheld computers. Also, the computers were not initially programmed to transmit the large amounts of data necessary. At more than $11 billion, the initial cost of the 2010 census is already the most expensive ever. Officials now are scrambling to hold down costs while trying to ensure the count produces reliable population numbers. One Democratic Congresswoman is not happy over the glitches. New York’s Carolyn Maloney, says “what we’re facing is a statistical Katrina on the part of the administration.”

New York lawmakers say they’ll keep fighting for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights. The nation’s first such law was struck down after a court found the law interferes with federal statutes. The New York Passenger Bill of Rights required airlines to give passengers fresh air, clean toilets, food and water if they were stuck on delayed flights for more than three hours. The state bill passed after passengers were stranded aboard airplanes for up to ten hours on several flights at Kennedy International Airport in 2007. New York supporters of the measure say their options include an appeal, a new law or pressuring the federal government to create similar rules for long-delayed flights. A California lawmaker also plans to push for an identical measure, modeled after the New York statute.

Ford stands to come away with $1.7 billion when it’s all over, by selling its Jaguar and Land Rover brands to India’s Tata Motors. Ford bought Jaguar for $2.5 billion in 1989 and Land Rover for 2.7 billion in 2000. But the automaker has been struggling and wants to focus on its main brands. A statement from Tata says the company will pay $2.3 billion for Jaguar and Land Rover, roughly a third of what Ford paid for the two luxury brands. Ford will then have to pay about $600 million into the Jaguar-Land Rover pension fund when the deal closes. One analyst says Tata should have the cash to rescue the brands and develop new products to better compete with luxury automakers.

The proposed $19.5 billion buyout of radio station operator Clear Channel Communications is reportedly near collapse. The Wall Street Journal reports that private equity firms leading the deal are having trouble nailing down a financing agreement with banks. But a person familiar with the situation tells the Associated Press that the equity partners led by Thomas H. Lee and Bain Capital Partners are prepared to fulfill their obligation to fund and close the deal. The source says, however, that some issues still need to be worked out.

A major drug manufacturer has settled a suit by Alaska for $15 million related to health problems from a drug used by the state’s Medicaid system. Alaska and Eli Lilly announced the settlement in the state’s lawsuit over the use of the drug Zyprexa. The deal ensures that Alaska will be treated as well as any other state that may settle with Lilly over similar claims involving the drug, which is used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The agreement included no admission of wrongdoing by Lilly. The state says Zyprexa-related health problems included weight gain, high blood sugar and diabetes. The trial judge, speaking without the jury present earlier this month, said evidence presented by the state had established that the Food and Drug Administration “isn’t capable of policing this matter.”

The Louisiana Public Service Commission has approved plans for a 600-megawatt coal-fired power plant in southwestern Arkansas. The unit would also serve parts of Louisiana and Texas. Southwestern Electric Power hopes to build the $1.3 billion plant in Hempstead County, near Fulton, Arkansas. The Arkansas Public Service Commission has already approved the company’s request, but opponents have appealed. The case is pending before the Arkansas Court of Appeals. The company’s plan is pending before the Texas Public Utility Commission. SWEPCO is a subsidiary of American Alectric Power. The plant is meant to provide electricity to 111,000 customers in Arkansas, as well as some of SWEPCO’s 340,000 customers in Texas and Louisiana. The utility hopes to open the plant in 2011.

California firm Xcor Aerospace has unveiled its design of a two-seat rocket ship that can carry tourists on suborbital flights. The Lynx is about the size of a small private plane and Xcor says it will be capable of reaching altitudes more than 37 miles above the earth. The announcement comes two months after aerospace designer Burt Rutan and billionaire Richard Branson unveiled a model of SpaceshipTwo, which is being built for Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism company. Xcor says the Lynx is designed to take off from a runway like a normal plane, reach a top speed of Mach 2 and an altitude of 200,000 feet, then descend in a circling glide to a runway landing. It’s expected to begin flying in 2010.

A new “Autotrend” survey from Houston-based Shell Oil Products indicates that 75 percent of Americans feel an emotional bond with the cars, according to the Houston Business Journal. Drivers surveyed even go so far as to say their vehicles have unique personalities, would make them proud in front of their boss and even help them get dates.

Used computer equipment can now be dropped off for free at the Computer Worksstore on Westheimer, according to the Houston Business Journal. Computer Works refurbishes computer hardware and software. Computers can also be unloaded at the 50 Houston-based Goodwill locations, as part of Dell’s Reconnect alliance.

Waste Management Chief Executive David Steiner received a 2007 compensation package valued at about $6.2 million. That’s slightly less than he received in 2006. That’s according to a company proxy statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Steiner got a salary of $998,077, incentive compensation of about $1.6 million, and other compensation and perks worth $131,058. Those perks included $51,047 for use of company aircraft, $12,876 for a car allowance and parking, and $12,714 for club initiation fees and dues. The biggest boost to Steiner’s pay package was from stock options and awards, which the company valued at about $3.5 million on the date they were granted early last year. Houston-based Waste Management is the nation’s largest garbage hauler. In February, it reported net income of 1.16 billion for 2007. That’s up slightly from earnings of $1.15 billion the year before. Full-year sales were roughly flat at $13.3 billion.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required