Monday AM April 28th, 2008

Tax rebates begin going out today…Harris County Judge on ten-day trip to India to promote international trade…U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform study shows a state's legal climate has an economic impact…

President Bush says the economy is weakening but he hopes tax rebates that start going out today will help shore things up. Bush says the rebates also will help people cope with higher gas and food prices. The rebates range from $300 to $1,200 and are the centerpiece of the government’s $168 billion economic stimulus package, enacted in February. Roughly 130 million households are expected to get them. The Bush administration is hoping that people will spend the money, helping to bolster the economy. Bush said “obviously our economy is in a slowdown.” The IRS says the first direct deposits of rebates begins today, with paper checks to follow starting next month.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is on a ten-day trip to western India to promote international trade for Harris County. Judge Emmett is joined by officials with the Greater Houston Partnership the Port of Houston Authority, the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Houston. They’re meeting with Indian government trade officials and private corporate executives. The group returns to Houston on Friday. Judge Emmett’s office announced that he is paying most of his own expenses himself, including flight costs.

The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform has polled attorneys on how reasonable and evenhanded the lawsuit climate is perceived to be by U.S. businesses. The study provides evidence that a state’s legal climate has an economic impact, according to the institute’s Lisa Rickard.

“It gives you an indication of where the companies believe the most fair and reasonable legal climates exist in the nation. And it’s an important indicator because these are the individuals who are making the decisions about where to invest, where to bring new plants, where to expand new products and services. So it has a pretty significant impact with regard to the decision-making of companies—their investment in the state and how they grow jobs there.”

Some 57 percent of those surveyed said that the litigation environment of a state is likely to impact important business decisions. Rickard says Texas hovers near the bottom of the 50-state rankings.

“Texas has moved up a few slots to number 41. In other words, it’s in the bottom ten. It’s moving slowly up the list, and it takes some time to change the overall perception and input of individuals with regard to a state’s lawsuit climate. Because once you get a reputation of being a haven for frivolous litigation or lawsuit abuse, it’s difficult to overcome that. Texas is moving up, and it’s the result of the work of the legislature and Governor Perry to implement lawsuit reforms that really changed the climate in the state to make it more favorable to developing jobs and the economy overall.”

Delaware has held the top spot for the seven years of the survey. West Virginia is ranked in last place for the third year in a row.

The Bush administration is accusing China, Russia and seven other nations of failing to protect American producers of movies, computer software and other copyrighted material from widespread piracy. The administration on Friday placed the nine countries on a “priority watch list” that will subject them to extra scrutiny and could eventually lead to economic sanctions–if the administration decides to pursue complaints before the World Trade Organization. In addition to China and Russia, the other seven countries targeted were Argentina, Chile, India, Israel, Pakistan, Thailand and Venezuela.

The Bush administration, responding to pleas from the U.S. textile industry, is imposing a temporary tariff on socks imported from Honduras. The administration said the five percent tariff would take effect on July 1st and would last until the end of the year, providing domestic manufacturers time to adjust to a flood of sock imports from Honduras that has occurred after the Central American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Honduras is the second largest foreign supplier of cotton socks to the United States after Pakistan and ahead of China.

Congressional negotiators say they have a tentative agreement on a multibillion-dollar farm bill. Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, who is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, says there’s no question that congress can complete the bill by the first week in May. The roughly $280 billion legislation expands agricultural and nutrition programs. A key breakthrough came Friday when senior lawmakers agreed to add $800 million for nutrition programs, to be paid for with cuts in direct subsidies and disaster payments for farmers. North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad says the shift is “urgently needed because of the run-up in food costs and food prices.”

A new report by the National Conference of State Legislatures says the debate over whether the nation is in a recession is “almost beside the point” for some state governments. The weakening economy is hitting tax revenue in a number of ways. Discretionary income is being gobbled up by higher food and fuel costs, while housing market woes mean people are spending less on furniture and appliances associated with buying a house. As tax revenues are falling, state budget deficits are growing. Sixteen states and Puerto Rico are reporting shortfalls in their current budgets. Delaware has a $69 million gap this year, and California projects a $16 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. Florida does not expect a rapid turnaround in revenue because of its prolonged real estate slump. But the report says things look better in energy-producing states. For instance, Alaska is making so much money from oil that it announced an estimated surplus next year of $8 billion, almost twice the state’s annual budget.

Increased demand and a shortage of qualified talent and sustained economic growth overseas is driving better-than-expected job growth at the executive level, according to ExecuNet’s 2008 Executive Job Market Intelligence Report. This 16th annual report says job growth at the executive level is not moving in lock-step with the rest of the employment market. The aging workforce and global economic growth is pushing the demand for executive talent, and search assignments could climb 17 percent this year. The report also found that 60 percent of all employed executives are satisfied with their current jobs. Compensation increased 5.7 percent in 2007 and is expected to grow another 6.2 percent in 2008.

HCC Coleman College for Health Sciences has received a $140,000 federal grant from the Department of Education for fund the Accelerated Nursing Proficiency Center. HCC Coleman plans to increase the number of graduates passing the national licensure exam, adding more registered nurses into the workforce. The school has a 95 percent pass rate on the NCLEX-RN. The center develops proficiency in English language skills for non-native speakers, medical terminology vocabulary, medication dosage calculations and student success workshops and tutoring services.

United Airlines has raised nearly all its domestic airfares by up to five percent. It’s working to stem losses arising from soaring fuel costs. The widespread increase is the third in a row initiated by United in just over two weeks. It will likely encourage other airlines to do the same. United’s last two attempts were quickly matched by competitors and remain in place in many markets. The increase applies everywhere in the U.S. except to and from Hawaii. Earlier this week, Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson said domestic carriers need to raise ticket prices 15 to 20 percent just to break even at existing fuel prices. United parent UAL, Delta and other major carriers reported billions of dollars in combined quarterly losses in recent days.

ExpressJet Holdings has rejected a $188 million takeover offer by Utah-based SkyWest Airlines, saying it’s not enough. The offer is a 67 percent premium over the Houston-based regional carrier’s closing price on Thursday.

Wachovia is paying an estimated $144 million to settle charges that it took advantage of elderly customers through questionable relationships with telemarketers. The federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency says Charlotte, North Carolina-based Wachovia had improper relationships with telemarketers, who used bank account information to sell vouchers for discount travel and groceries, and other products. The bank has not admitted any wrongdoing, but will pay up to $125 million in claims, $8.9 million toward consumer education programs and a $10 million fine.

General Motors says threatened strikes by United Auto workers locals at plants in Kansas and Michigan have been postponed. A GM spokesman says United Auto Workers locals at a Kansas City assembly plant and a metal stamping plant near Grand Rapids will give the company 12-hour notices if they intend to strike. Workers at both plants had threatened to walk out this morning in disputes over local contract issues. The Kansas City plant makes the hot-selling Chevrolet Malibu.

A Chamber of Commerce study suggests the government’s plan to crack down on illegal workers could cost employers more than a billion dollars a year. The study also suggests legal workers would be out as much as $37 billion in lost wages. The department’s proposed “no match” rule would require employers to fire workers who can’t resolve mismatches between their name and social security number. The chamber opposes the proposal. The mismatches can come about because someone is working illegally, or because of something as simple as a typo. The Department of Homeland Security estimates two percent of legal workers a year would lose their jobs because they can’t resolve the social security mismatch.

Federal health officials heard stories of pain and frustration from patients harmed by Lasik eye surgery. At a public hearing, officials heard stories of eye pain and blurred or double vision because of the procedure. Most Lasik recipients do walk away with crisper vision, but others suffer life-changing side effects like poor vision even with glasses or the inability to see or drive at night. One man who had Lasik in 1998 says he has “not experienced a moment of crisp, good quality vision since.” The Food and Drug Administration is taking a new look at whether warnings about its risks are appropriate, and pairing with eye surgeons for major study to better understand who has bad outcomes and why. This study would involve hundreds of Lasik patients. The FDA thinks about five percent of patients are dissatisfied, but 95 percent are happy, with some achieving better than 20/20 vision. About 7.6 million Americans have undergone some form of laser vision correction, including the $2000-per-eye Lasik. And though ophthalmologist Doctor Robert Cykiert says the FDA has received 140 complaints from unhappy patients, he’s still a believer and recommends it for those who are a good fit.


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