Thursday PM May 29th, 2008

Gasoline prices continue climbing well past predicted Memorial Day spike…Farmer's Branch prohibition against renting to illegal immigrants declared unconstitutional… Texas appeals court scraps $26 million Vioxx verdict…

The Memorial Day weekend has come and gone but the price of gas continues to go up and up. In previous years, motorists might expect a price break after the holiday, but this year, each new day seems to bring a new all-time high. Today’s no exception. AAA puts the national average for a gallon of regular at a record $3.95. That’s a jump of 35 cents in the past month and is 76 cents a gallon higher than it was a year ago. If you need premium, it’s also never been more expensive. The auto club says the national average for premium is $4.35. That’s an 84-cent jump over last year.

A Dallas suburb’s rule against renting apartments to illegal immigrants has been declared unconstitutional. Federal Judge Sam Lindsay says in his ruling that it’s the federal government’s job to police immigration matters. Lindsay says the city of Farmers Branch shouldn’t have tried to determine which non citizens could rent apartments there. The ordinance passed last year requires landlords to verify the legal status of renters. Residents endorsed the measure a year ago in the nation’s first public vote on such a matter.

Houston is home to the highest number of aggressive hospitals in the state, according to Consumer Reports. The magazine launched a new Web tool to help people choose hospitals based on their approaches to treating chronic, life-threatening illnesses. The magazine says in some cases, aggressive care may actually shorten a person’s life because of more treatments, more hospital time and increased risk of medical errors and infection. Conservative care relies more on primary care than on hospital care and on better care coordination. Houston’s most aggressive hospitals are Cypress Fairbanks Medical Center, Bayshore Medical Center in Pasadena, Park Plaza Hospital, Houston Northwest Medical Center and Doctors Hospital-Tidwell—all are above the 97th percentile nationwide for aggressive hospital care. But Trinity Medical Center in Brenham and Shelby Regional Medical Center in Center fall below the 30th percentile, meaning they are less aggressive than more than 70 percent of U.S. hospitals. The new Web tool allows consumers to compare treatment approaches for nine serious chronic illnesses.

A Texas appeals court has scrapped a $26 million verdict against Merck stemming from the first trial involving its once popular painkiller Vioxx. The 14th Court of Appeals in Houston found no evidence that Robert Ernst suffered a fatal heart problem from a blood clot triggered by Vioxx. He had been taking the now-withdrawn drug for eight months before being stricken in May 2001. His widow had won a $253 million verdict against New Jersey-based Merck in 2005, but Texas punitive damage caps later cut that to about $26 million.

Federal regulators say they are six months into a wide-ranging investigation of U.S. oil markets, focusing on possible price manipulation. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission says it started the probe in December and is taking the unusual step of publicizing it because of what it calls “today’s unprecedented market conditions.” Crude prices have risen more than 42 percent since early December, when they hovered below $90 a barrel. Gasoline prices are nearing a national average of $4 a gallon, up from about $3.20 a year ago. The agency says details of the investigation remain confidential.

The Port Commission of the Port of Houston Authority approved a $14.3 million, three-year security contract with Day & Zimmerman for unarmed, uniformed security guard services at PHA terminal gates. Commissioners authorized additional funding for two law firms working on the Bayport container terminal case against Zachry Construction, which goes to trial in April. Legal fees in the port’s case have topped $6 million.

General Motors says a quarter of its U.S. hourly workers will take its latest buyout offers. That will open the door for new hires making less money. An agreement reached last fall with the UAW allows GM to hire up to 16,000 non-assembly workers at half the old wage of $28 per hour. GM said it would fill job openings with current employees wherever possible, but would also be hiring new workers. The automaker said that 19,000 workers had agreed to take the buyout offers and leave the company by July 1st. GM offered buyouts to all 74,000 of its U.S. hourly workers in February. GM conducted its last round of buyouts in 2006, when 34,410 workers left the company. An executive says GM is trying to reshape its business in a challenging U.S. market, which has seen a steep drop-off in auto sales due to high gas prices and the weak economy.

Bear Stearn shareholders have approved JPMorgan Chase’s $2.2 billion buyout of the investment bank whose big wagers on sub-prime mortgages led to its near-collapse. The widely anticipated “yes” vote at Bear Stearns’ midtown Manhattan headquarters Thursday means the company will officially become part of JPMorgan by Friday. JPMorgan Chase is buying Bear Stearns for about $10 a share. Back in January 2007, before mortgage defaults began clobbering banks and draining demand from the debt markets, Bear Stearns had traded at $171 a share.

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