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Thursday AM June 12th, 2008

Treasury Department says federal budget deficit at all-time high after economic stimulus payments…Texas economy in top five in gross state product growth…Government-issued digital television converter box coupons expiring before they can be used…

A flood of economic stimulus payments pushed the federal budget deficit to an all-time high of $165.9 billion in May. The Treasury Department reported that the May deficit was more than double the imbalance in May 2007. That reflects some $48 billion in payments as part of the government’s $168 billion effort to give the economy a jump-start and keep the country from falling into recession. For the first eight months of the budget year, the deficit totals $319.4 billion, slightly below the all-time record for this period of $346 billion, set in the 2004 budget year.

The Federal Reserve says the economy remained “generally weak” heading into summer as rising costs for energy and food pounded consumers and forced some companies to push their own prices higher. The Fed’s new snapshot of business conditions, released Wednesday in Washington, underscored two big sore spots for the country: listless economic activity coupled with lofty energy and food prices. Those rising prices raise the risks of both spreading inflation and putting another drag on overall economic growth.

The Texas economy is in the top five in the nation in gross state product growth, according to Global Insight, which studied statistics released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Texas recorded gross state product growth of 6.9 percent in 2007, tying Washington for fifth place. Utah had the biggest growth last year with 7.9 percent. Faster population gains, lower business operating costs, favorable public policies that attract businesses and rising educational attainment are credited.

Houston is one of the world’s top centers of commerce, according to the 2008 Mastercard Worldwide Center of Commerce Index, as reported in the Houston Business Journal. Houston is 34th on the list of 75 cities. Rankings are based on legal and political framework, economic stability, ease of doing business, financial flow, business center, knowledge creation and information flow and livability.

Four of the nation’s largest homebuilders have agreed to pay $4.3 million in fines for failing to control runoff at construction sites in 34 states and the District of Columbia. The four companies–Centex Homes, KB Home, Pulte Homes and Richmond American Homes–also have agreed to take steps above what is required by law to keep 1.2 billion pounds of sediment out of the nation’s waterways. The settlements with the homebuilders and the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department were reached on Wednesday. The settlements are part of a nationwide crackdown by the EPA to find storm water violations at construction sites. The Clean Water Act requires builders that disturb land to obtain permits and minimize runoff from rain.

Toyota plans to introduce a plug-in hybrid using next-generation lithium-ion batteries in the U.S., Japan and Europe by 2010. That’s part of its new green strategy. Toyota says the ecological gas-electric vehicles, which can be recharged from a home electrical outlet, will target leasing customers. Plug-in hybrids can run longer as an electric vehicle than regular hybrids, and are cleaner. Lithium-ion batteries, now common in laptops, produce more power and are smaller than nickel-metal hydride batteries used in hybrids now. The joint venture that Toyota set up with Matsushita Electric Industrial, which makes Panasonic products, will begin producing lithium-ion batteries in 2009 and move into full-scale production in 2010. Japan’s top automaker, which leads the industry in gas-electric hybrids, has said it will rev up hybrid sales to a million a year sometime after 2010.

Dutch office supplies distributor Corporate Express has accepted a sweetened buyout offer from Staples of the U.S. the winning bid is worth about $2.7 billion. Staples was aggressive in pursuing the deal to broaden its reach in Europe, raising its offer four times. Including debt assumption, staples says the deal is worth about $4.8 billion. Staples is the world’s largest seller of office supplies on the basis of its strength as a retailer in the U.S. market. Corporate Express is the largest distributor, selling only to companies.

Semiconductor maker Texas Instruments is buying Innovative Design Solutions, a Florida company that develops analog chips. Financial terms are not being disclosed. IDS is a longtime supplier to Texas Instruments. It designs high-speed chips for uses including test and measurement, communications and medical electronics. Art George, senior vice president of Texas Instruments’ high performance analog business unit, said that analog is an area where the Dallas-based chip maker is growing.

GE Energy has announced it’ll buy a Dallas-based company that develops mapping and other technology for electric, gas and water utility employees working in the field. GE Energy’s a subsidiary of Fairfield, Connecticut-based General Electric. It said that its purchase of Mapframe will expand its portfolio of utility transmission and distribution offerings. Mapframe’s products give utility employees who perform repairs, equipment maintenance, meter reading and inspection real-time information delivered to laptops and hand-held devices, boosting worker productivity in the field. Mapframe says its product is used by more than 35,000 field and office workers at 30 major U.S. utilities.

Members of Congress say some Americans are finding the government-issued coupons intended to help pay for digital television converter boxes are expiring before they can be used. Several lawmakers told a House panel that consumers also are having a tough time finding converter boxes, which are sold out in some stores, and should be given more time to buy them even after the coupons expire. The government set up a $1.5 billion program to help consumers buy converter boxes before the transition to digital programming next February. Each household is eligible for two $40 coupons, which are aimed primarily at up to 21 million owners of older-model TV sets that rely on antennas. Cable and satellite TV subscribers don’t need the boxes.

A program to provide special identification cards to workers who have access to seaports has hit another snag. Mississippi Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson says eight of the 12 machines used to make the cards are broken. Thompson, in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, says the broken machines mean that the time it takes to make one card has jumped from one day to as many as ten days. A Transportation Security Administration spokesman says the machines should be up and running by the end of the week. The program has had a series of problems. The enrollment deadline has been extended by six months. Some workers have not been getting the help they need when they do apply for the high-tech card. And there has been criticism of the nearly $133 charge for each ID. The goal is to have 1.2 million workers enrolled in the program by next April.

Tomatoes being harvested in Florida and those grown in California have been cleared in the salmonella outbreak. But the Food and Drug Administration still doesn’t know the source of the outbreak, which has sickened 167 people in 17 states since April. Many of those cases are in Texas. Not all tomatoes are implicated, and no new cases have been reported in two weeks. Experts are noting that supermarkets, fast food restaurants, and the government are reacting more aggressively than in previous salmonella outbreaks. A lawyer who specializes in food contamination cases says fast food chains have pulled tomatoes because they don’t want to look foolish if a customer gets sick. Consumer advocacy groups says the government is trying to be more responsive because it’s been “fairly slow in the past.”

Employment opportunities at Rice University will be featured in a job fair this afternoon in the Grand Hall at Rice Memorial Center on Main. Rice will have representatives from academic, administrative, athletic and service-oriented departments on hand to discuss current and future openings at Rice.