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Friday PM March 27th, 2009

Skilling resentencing set for July 30th…Gasoline prices creep back upwards…Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine move forward with merger talks…

A federal judge has scheduled the resentencing of formerEnron CEO Jeff Skilling for July 30th. U.S. District Judge Sim Lake is giving Enron victims until May 29th to state in writing if they want to be heard in court that day, and to summarize what they want to say. Written comments by victims who do not want to speak are also being accepted. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in January that Lake improperly boosted part of Skilling’s 24-year punishment under sentencing guidelines. Skilling was convicted in 2006 or conspiracy, securities fraud, insider trading and lying to auditors. Enron collapsed in bankruptcy in 2001.

The government says more states logged double-digit unemployment rates in February, with North Carolina and Rhode Island seeing their rates hit record highs. The U.S. Labor Department says seven states have unemployment rates that topped ten per cent last month. That’s up from four states in January. Michigan’s jobless rate climbed to 12 per cent, the highest in the country. South Carolina registered the second-highest at 11 per cent and Oregon came in third at 10.8 per cent. North Carolina came in fourth with an unemployment rate of 10.7 per cent, the highest there on records dating back to 1976. California and Rhode Island tied for fifth place at 10.5 per cent each. That was an all-time high for Rhode Island.

Retail gasoline prices crept an average of ten per gallon higher in Texas but still remain about $1.24 per gallon cheaper than a year ago. The weekly AAA Texas gasoline price survey finds regular self-serve was averaging $1.92 per gallon in the 11 cities reporting. That’s eight cents cheaper than the national average of $2 per gallon. Prices in Houston jumped nearly 13 cents to $1.93 a gallon. San Antonio has the cheapest gas in the state at $1.85 per gallon, while the most expensive is $1.99 in El Paso. Auto club spokeswoman Sarah Schimmer says industry analysts report the demand for oil is increasing, but that ample supplies make a repeat of last summer’s record prices unlikely.

An increasing number of recruiters expect executive hiring will begin to rebound before the end of the year. ExecuNet’s Recruiter Confidence Index reached its highest levels of the first quarter in March. Thirty-eight per cent of those surveyed are confident the executive employment market will improve in the next six months—up from 28 per cent last month.

More Texas workers say they are likely to look for a new job in the next year, according to the latest Spherion’s Employment Report. Thirty-four per cent of respondents say they were considering a job change—up from 28 per cent in January. Only 61 per cent of workers in the Texas Employee Confidence Index say they’re confident about the future of their employers in February, compared to 77 per cent in January.

Figures obtained by the Associated Press show that Countrywide Financial and Washington Mutual fell short in creating jobs under their agreement with Texas. Countrywide was more than 1,600 jobs off target for last year. Washington Mutual was 192 jobs below its goal. Both companies have laid off thousands of workers nationally and have been taken over by other firms since receiving tens of millions of dollars from the taxpayer-funded account overseen by Governor Rick Perry. Countrywide was supposed to create 5,500 new jobs by the end of 2008 under its contract, but created only 3,876. Perry’s office says the company is still in compliance with its long-term agreement to bring 7,500 total new jobs to Texas by the end of 2010. That’s because it has “surplus credits” accumulated when the company exceeds its job target in previous years. Washington Mutual had a target of creating 2,400 jobs last year. But it reported only 2,208. Like Countrywide, it has surplus credits to keep it in compliance.

Eighteen groups representing consumers, business, insurers, doctors and hospitals say they have reached agreement on how they would like to see the nation’s health care system overhauled. The groups, calling themselves the Health Reform Dialogue, say the uninsured should be covered through a combination of expanded government programs and subsidies to purchase private health coverage. The 18 organizations in the group have been meeting for six months. While they failed to resolve several major issues, their agreement could serve as a starting point for lawmakers trying to craft a plan this year that can win broad support.

Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine confirm that merger talks are moving forward, signing a memorandum of understanding to lay the framework for negotiations. The two institutions announced they were considering merging last October. Baylor separated from Methodist Hospital in 2004.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has a public meeting on Monday related to a proposed coal- and petroleum coke-fired power plant in Bay City. White Stallion Energy Center is seeking an air permit for the proposed 1,320 megawatt Matagorda County plant. The TCEQ has determined that emissions would not violate state or federal air quality regulations. Petroleum coke is a byproduct of oil refining produced in a blend with high-quality bituminous coal.

T. Boone Pickens speaks about his plan to increase investment in renewable energy this Sunday evening at the Wortham Center’s Brown Theater. His so-called PickensPlan is a self-funded national campaign for increasing wind, solar and alternative energy.

A barge carrying four massive steel modules to be used in an oil refinery project has left brewer for what’s expected to be a 15- to 20-day trip to Port Arthur. Scores of people lined the Penobscot River to watch the seagoing tug Emma Foss haul the 350-foot barge from Cianbro’s eastern manufacturing facility in Brewer. The modules, which weigh up to 700 tons each, are the first of 53 such units being built at the former paper mill site for the Motiva Enterprises expansion. About ten to 12 barge shipments are expected to make the 2,500-mile voyage before the refinery project goes on line in early 2012.

A central Texas county is rethinking a $617,000 contract with Houston-based KBR. Hays County had hired KBR to build a mile-long rural road near the home of two anti-Iraq war veterans trying to stop the deal with the defense contractor. The contract is for a small, four-lane road leading to a new suburban high school near Austin. KBR is the lone finalist for the project. But former soldiers Bryan Hannah and Gregory Foster helped put the approval in doubt after criticizing the company’s battered image at a commissioner’s court meeting in San Marcos. That led a KBR official to deny allegations that the company exposed U.S. soldiers to toxic chemicals and deadly showers in Iraq. Commissioners say they’re now weighing KBR’s record and have delayed their decision until next month. KBR oversees maintenance at most U.S. facilities in Iraq. It’s been criticized after soldiers there have been shocked or electrocuted while using showers or appliances. It also faces a lawsuit from soldiers who allege it knowingly exposed them to carcinogens while guarding an Iraqi water pumping plant.

Dozens of employees of the Service Employees International Union are picketing their own union over its decision to lay off about 75 workers. The staffers marched outside SEIU headquarters in Washington chanting “justice for all, not just some.” The union of union representatives, which represents SEIU organizers and field staff, has filed unfair labor practice charges and age and race discrimination claims against the union. SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette calls the complaints meritless and says the layoffs were made because the union is shifting organizing work away from its national office to local unions. She calls the protest “a sign of a thriving democratic movement” and says the union hopes to work out the dispute.

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