Monday PM March 30th, 2009

Texas Senate Finance Committee sends two-year, $177 billion state budget to full Senate…Gorbachev visits San Antonio to push solar power…U.S. Internet ad revenue climbs marginally in the fourth quarter…

A two-year, $177 billion state budget is headed for the Texas Senate. That’s after the Senate Finance Committee voted 14-0 to adopt the plan. The proposal for 2010-2011 spends almost $11 billion in federal stimulus funds. That money helped lawmakers close a multibillion dollar gap between the amount of state revenue available and spending needs. Most of the money is spent on education and health care. The full Senate is expected to take up the budget within a few days. The House is working on its own version of the budget. The two-year state budget is the one piece of legislation lawmakers are legally required to adopt during the biennial legislative session, which adjourns in June.

President Barack Obama has refused further long-term federal bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler, saying more concessions were needed from unions, creditors and others before they could be approved. He’s raising the possibility of controlled bankruptcy for one or both of the beleaguered auto giants. At the same time, eager to reassure consumers, Obama announced the federal government would immediately begin backing the warranties that new car buyers receive. The step is designed to signal that it is safe to purchase U.S.-made autos and trucks despite the distress of the industry. In a statement read at the White House, Obama said he was “absolutely committed” to the survival of a domestic auto industry that can compete internationally. The administration forced the departure of Rick Wagoner as CEO of General Motors over the weekend.

Congressional investigators are asking Americans to report waste and fraud associated with the Obama administration’s stimulus law. The Government Accountability Office urges government employees, contractors and citizens to use its established Fraudnet program to report problems with stimulus-funded programs. Allegations of waste, fraud and mismanagement of funds from the Recovery Act can be reported using Fraudnet’s e-mail address, telephone hotline or fax number. The GAO will track stimulus spending in 16 states and issue bimonthly reviews of how the money is used. To report information call 800-424-5454, fax 202-512-3086 or e-mail

Factory activity in Texas contracted again in March, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, as reported by the Houston Business Journal. Fifty-three per cent of manufacturing executives report weaker market conditions and 43 per cent experienced no improvement from February. Demand for labor in manufacturing remains weak, with more than half the firms surveyed implementing job cuts.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is in Texas pushing solar power as the “best hope” of delivering electricity to the poor and helping the environment. Gorbachev appeared in San Antonio for the International Petrochemical Conference. He called the oil industry a key stake holder in turning the tide against greenhouse gases. Gorbachev is founder of Green Cross International, an environmental organization that also released a global report card on solar energy and development. Germany led all countries with an A-, while the U.S. was given a C+.

Online postings of jobs in Texas are down by 16,500 in March, according to the Conference Board, as reported by the Houston Business Journal. That’s the state’s largest single decline of online job postings. The board’s Help Wanted Online Data Series had online advertised job openings falling 100,000 to 3.2 million in March. There were slightly more than two advertised vacancies for every 100 people in the labor forced—down from slightly more than three per 100 in March.

Federal government officials want stricter emissions standards imposed on large ships to improve the air quality of major seaport communities. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson said that the United States is asking the International Maritime Organization to create a 230-mile buffer zone around the nation’s coastline. Jackson says ships operating in that zone would face stricter limits on the sulfur content of their fuel beginning in 2015. She also says new ships must use advanced emission-control technologies beginning in 2016. Jackson made the announcement at a news conference in Port Newark in northern New Jersey. The EPA says 40 of the 100 largest U.S. ports are located in metropolitan areas that fail to meet federal air quality standards.

The National Association of Realtors reports that sales of vacation homes and investment properties slid 30 per cent last year as tough economic conditions and tight lending requirements shut out buyers. The realtors group also said that median sales prices of vacation and investment homes dropped 23 per cent to $150,000 as problems in housing market stretched to the second home segment. Home sales were down across the board in 2008. The realtors group said sales of primary homes declined 13 per cent to 3.77 million last year. Conducted in March, the 2008 investment and vacation home buyers survey includes 1,924 responses.

Netflix is raising its prices for rentals of Blu-Ray discs. The change will triple or quadruple the high-definition surcharge on Netflix’s most popular subscription plans. The new rates are being driven by the growing appetite for discs in the high-definition format. Blu-Ray discs cost about 30 per cent more than standard DVDs, so Netflix’s profit margins are being squeezed as it expands its Blu-ray inventory. Netflix had been imposing a $1 monthly surcharge for Blu-Ray rentals since September, regardless of how much the basic subscription plan costs. Effective April 27th, Netflix will adopt a sliding scale that will slap higher Blu-Ray fees on plans that let customers check out multiple DVDs at a time.

U.S. Internet advertising revenue climbed marginally in the fourth quarter in spite of the poor economy. But the growth rate was sluggish compared to previous years. An analysis from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers said revenue from online ads totaled $6.1 billion in the last three months of 2008. That marked an increase of almost three per cent from the same period in 2007. But back then, Internet advertising was up 24 per cent over the previous year.

A group that monitors Internet crime says complaints jumped 33 per cent in 2008. The Internet Crime Complaint Center said it received more than 275,000 complaints last year — up from about 207,000 the year before. The total reported dollar loss from such scams was $265 million, or about $25 million more than the year before. About one in three complaints were for nonpayment or non-delivery. The other most common complaints were for auction fraud or credit and debit card fraud. The Internet Crime Complaint Center is a partnership of the FBI and a nonprofit group that tracks white collar crime.

A job readiness seminar is set for Alvin Community College tomorrow afternoon. Workshops and one-on-one assistance will help in writing resumes, acquiring skills and manage current financial resources. It’s at the Science/Health Science Building on Mustang Road in Alvin.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required