Thursday PM June 26th, 2008

Sales of previously-owned homes rises…Vietnam's prime minister talks business in Houston visit…Texas City explosion victims ask Supreme Court to stop BP's criminal liability settlement…

Sales of previously-owned homes rose in May for just the second time in ten months. Existing homes edged up slightly in May although median home prices continued to fall. The National Association of Realtors says sales rose by two percent–to 4.99 million existing single-family homes and condominiums last month. The median price of an existing home, meanwhile, dropped 6.3 percent in May–to $208,600. The decline was the fifth biggest year-over-year price slide since 1999. Sales were up in all parts of the country except the south, where they dropped by a half percent. They rose 5.5 percent in the Midwest, 4.6 percent in the Northeast and two percent in the West.

A housing rescue plan is stalled in the Senate because of a dispute over taxes. However, Senate leaders say they’re optimistic they can get the measure passed before Congress breaks for a weeklong July 4th vacation. Democrats and many Republicans are pushing for quick approval of the bill. It would allow the government to back $300 billion in new, cheaper mortgages for debt-ridden homeowners facing foreclosure. But negotiations to complete the measure hit a snag over a bid by Nevada Republican John Ensign to add a $6 billion package of tax breaks for renewable energy producers. The incentives have bipartisan backing, but Democrats oppose including them without balancing them with tax hikes to prevent an increase in the deficit.

Vietnam’s prime minister and his delegation of about 100 Vietnamese officials met with Texas businesses in Houston today. The business forum was a chance for Nguyan Tan Dung to meet with Texas cotton producers, airline executives and energy company officials. It was organized by the president of the International Trade Expo, based on demand for products from Vietnam such as coffee. Airline officials are interested in offering flights to Vietnam. Vietnam is also interested in Texas cotton and beef. Trade with Vietnam exceeded $12.5 billion last year—up 30 percent from the previous year. The Greater Houston Partnership says 214 Houston businesses do business with Vietnam. Vietnam’s ambassador to the U.S. said his nation would like to open a consul general’s office.

Victims of a deadly explosion at a BP plant near Houston are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to help them stop a settlement over criminal conduct in the case. Attorneys for blast victims filed a petition with the court Thursday asking for a 60-day delay of a lower court’s decision to send the case back to a Houston judge so she can decide whether to give final approval to the plea agreement. Victims’ attorneys say the delay will give them time to prepare a detailed appeal to the Supreme Court. The plea deal calls for a $50 million fine and sentences the oil giant to three years’ probation for its role in the blast, which killed 15 people and injured more than 170. The victims don’t think the fine is big enough.

The Supreme Court is making it difficult for utility companies to challenge costly, long-term energy supply contracts negotiated during the West Coast energy crisis seven years ago. The justices said in a 5-2 decision Thursday that the contracts must be presumed to be just and reasonable, absent serious harm to the public interest. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia nonetheless ruled in favor of the utilities on one point, saying the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must provide a more complete explanation of why it upheld the agreements. The presidentially appointed commission said the agreements were not contrary to the public interest.

The Supreme Court has struck down the “millionaire’s amendment” as an unfair way to help opponents of wealthy candidates who spend from their personal fortunes. The law allows candidates to receive larger contributions when their wealthy opponents spend heavily from their personal fortunes. The court says by a 5-4 vote that the law violates the First Amendment. The law was challenged by Jack Davis, a New York Democrat who has so far spent nearly $4 million of his own money in two losing campaigns for Congress and says he will spend another $3 million this year. Davis says the law unfairly rewards his opponents by allowing them to exceed campaign fundraising limits simply because Davis has chosen to dip into his personal funds.

Four international airlines have agreed to pay $504 million in fines to settle charges they conspired to fleece consumers by driving up cargo shipping prices. The Justice Department calls the case one of the largest antitrust settlements in U.S. history. Associate Attorney General Kevin O’Connor describes the scam as an “international price-fixing cartel” that cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars between 2001 and 2006. In some instances, for example, fuel surcharges rose by 1,000 percent. One of the four airlines–Air France-KLM–has agreed to pay $350 million of the total settlement. The investigation is continuing.

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