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Monday PM March 22nd, 2010

Texas attorney general to legally challenge health care bill…Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo sets attendance record…Capital Metrorail begins passenger service connecting Leander and downtown Austin…



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A transformative health care bill is headed to President Barack Obama for his signature. On the cusp of succeeding where numerous past Congresses and administrations have failed, jubilant House Democrats voted 219-212 late Sunday to send legislation to Obama that will extend coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans. The legislation’s also designed to reduce deficits and ban insurance company practices such as denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions. Obama’s young presidency received a much needed boost from passage of the legislation, which will touch the lives of nearly every American. Republicans opposed the bill, saying it’s too expensive and calling it a government takeover.

President Barack Obama calls the health care legislation “a victory for the American people” and “a victory for common sense.” The bill “will not solve every problem” in the health care system, Obama says, but “moves us in the right direction.” Obama praised Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats for getting the bill through. The heated debate that surrounding the legislation will fade away, Obama said, leaving a “health care system that works better for the American people.”

Attorney General Greg Abbott says Texas and other states will legally challenge the federal health care legislation Congress has passed. Abbott issued a statement late Sunday night after the U.S. House approved the measure. He said the legislation violates the U.S. constitution and unconstitutionally infringes upon Texans’ individual liberties. Only House Democrats voted for the bill. Abbott is a Republican. A number of Texas Republicans have been highly critical of the measure.

Google will shift its search engine for China off the mainland and maintain other operations in the country. It’s an attempt to balance its stance against censorship with its desire to profit from an explosively growing Internet market. The compromise resolves a two-and-a-half-month impasse pitting the world’s most powerful Internet company against the government of the world’s most populous country. Google plans to keep its engineering and sales offices in China so it can keep a technological toehold in the country and continue to sell ads for the Chinese-language version of its search engine in the U.S. But even as it maintains a presence in China, Google is still taking a risk that it will be less able to take advantage of opportunities in the market.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo set an attendance record with more than 2.1 million visitors. The 78th annual Expo, which opened March 2nd and wrapped up Sunday, was a showcase for Texas agriculture and western heritage, including rodeo performances and stage entertainment. Organizers reported the previous general attendance mark for the event was set in 2009, with nearly 1.9 million visitors. This year’s event broke the two million mark for the first time, with total attendance of 2,144,077.

Capital Metrorail began service with its passenger line connecting Leander and downtown Austin. No fare will be charged on the 32-mile red line for the first week of rail service. Fares will be charged starting March 29th. A one-way fare is as low as $1. A five-day Metrorail pass costs $20. The schedule includes six southbound and three northbound trips in the morning, and then six northbound and four southbound trips in the afternoon. Capital Metro’s rail service is meant to bolster its current system of more than 3,000 bus stops.

Getting around Hurricane Ike-recovering Galveston County is getting easier and cheaper. Seven fixed bus routes are part of expanded public transportation that began Monday. The routes add to island transit service provided in Galveston. Ike swamped parts of the Galveston area on September 13th, 2008, leaving behind destroyed homes and businesses and few ways to get to and from the properties. The only previous public transportation in the county was at the island city and an on-demand service from Connect Transportation. James Hollis with Connect Transportation says the new routes will be free to riders through September. Funding comes from a $667,000 Houston-Galveston Area Council Grant for Public Transportation throughout Ike-impacted communities. Unless new funding sources are found, the new routes will cease running in September.

The average price of regular gasoline in the United States is up 8.6 cents over a two-week period to $2.81. That’s according to the national Lundberg Survey of fuel prices released Sunday. The price shows an increase of 86 cents from a year ago. Analyst Trilby Lundberg says the average price for a gallon of mid-grade was $2.94. Premium was at $3.05. Newark, New Jersey, had the lowest average price among cities surveyed at $2.60 a gallon for regular. Honolulu was highest at $3.38. Diesel was at $2.96, up more than four cents from two weeks ago. Average retail gasoline prices in Houston have risen 2.1 cents over the past week, averaging $2.64 today, according to

Halliburton and KBR have withdrawn an appeal asking the Supreme Court to block the trial of a former military contractor from Texas who says she was raped by co-workers in Iraq. Halliburton confirms that the appeal was withdrawn, but wouldn’t elaborate. Jamie Leigh Jones says she was raped while working for KBR in Baghdad in 2005. She later sued KBR and Halliburton, which split in 2007. Halliburton and KBR had argued that Jones’ case should be settled in arbitration as required by her contract. A lower court ruled it could go to trial, which is set for May 2011. The Associated Press usually doesn’t name people alleging sexual assault, but Jones’ identity has been broadcast in media reports and on her own Web site.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he wants to know more about the role contractors might be playing in war zones when it comes to collecting intelligence. Gates told reporters that he is looking into allegations that a Defense Department official ran an off-the-books spy operation in Afghanistan and Pakistan that relied on contractors. Gates says he has concerns with such a program “`in principle,” but wants to know more about it and whether it was useful. Gates said: “if it’s necessary to make some changes, I’ll do that.”

The International Monetary Fund is warning the world’s wealthiest nations to watch their surging levels of government debt, saying it could drag down the growth needed to ensure continued economic recovery. John Lipsky, the IMF’s number two official, told the China Development Forum in Beijing that the economic crisis is leaving “deep scars in fiscal balances, particularly in the advanced economies.” He said countries that have been going into debt to stimulate their economies should now prepare for belt-tightening steps next year. The IMF projects that gross general government debt in the G-7 advanced economies, except Germany and Canada, will rise from an average of about 75 percent of GDP at the end of 2007 to about 110 percent of GDP at end of 2014. This year, the average debt-to-GDP ratio in the wealthiest countries is projected to reach levels that prevailed in 1950 in the aftermath of World War II.

A bill rewriting regulations governing the financial industry is expected to be approved by a Senate committee on a party line vote now that Republicans have decided to withdraw their amendments. The decision means Senate consideration could come as early as Monday. The measure aims to avoid a recurrence of the 2008 financial crisis that helped plunge the country into the deepest recession since the Great Depression. But the surprise development also raises significant questions about the Senate’s ability to ultimately pass a bill if it can’t muster any Republican support. The Senate Banking Committee had faced at least a week of work after Senators filed more than 400 amendments to a bill proposed by the panel’s chairman, Senator Christopher Dodd.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says the administration will not accept a financial overhaul bill that does not provide strong consumer protection and restraints on risk taking by large banks. Geithner urged lawmakers to listen to the families and businesses that were harmed by the financial crisis and not the financial institutions that brought on the crisis, the most severe to hit the country since the 1930s. Geithner’s comments were prepared for delivery to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, as the Senate Banking Committee was preparing to take up the bill.

Vice President Joe Biden says average income tax refunds are up nearly ten percent to just over $3,000, largely due to various tax benefits in last year’s economic stimulus bill. Internal Revenue Service data show the average refund is up more than $260, a 9.6 percent increase over last year. Since about half of all Americans have yet to file their returns, administration officials are holding events across the country this week reminding taxpayers to take advantage of those benefits on their 2009 tax returns. The stimulus bill included help for taxpayers for college expenses, buying a first home and making energy-efficiency improvements on their homes, among other tax credits. Income tax day is April 15th.

Britain’s prime minister says the scientist credited with inventing the World Wide Web will lead a new Internet research institute. Tim Berners Lee, who developed the Web in 1990, will head up Britain’s Institute of Web Science. The institute–which has been given £30 million ($45 million) funding–will aim to help Britain develop 250,000 new jobs in the technology sector. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said it will put Britain at the cutting edge of “emerging Web and Internet technologies.” He said the institute would work on opening up government data for public use, such as developing Smartphone apps, or interactive maps. Brown pledged to ensure all Britons have access to high-speed broadband by 2020.

Texas follows the national trend with Hispanics less likely to graduate from public and private universities compared to whites. The study by the nonprofit American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research used data from six-year graduation rates from the National Center for Education Statistics. The study found that 51 percent of Hispanics who started college earned a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 59 percent of whites. The Texas figures indicate 40 percent of Hispanics graduated within six years, compared with 45 percent for whites. The report found that many Hispanics dropped out because of financial challenges, such as students less likely aware of loan and scholarship assistance. The study recommends that institutions focus on improved retention and completion efforts for all students, plus offering better financial information.

Jobs are being lost and rural economies are suffering as farmers in some parts of the U.S. switch from growing cotton to corn. Economists estimate for every three jobs needed to produce cotton, only one is needed to grow corn or soybeans. They say it’s difficult to say exactly how many jobs have been lost, but the shift is real. Most cotton jobs are in post-production, and that’s where losses have been greatest. The National Cotton Ginners Association says the number of gins in the U.S. has dropped from 835 in 2006 to an estimated 700. Yazoo Planters Gin, near Yazoo City, Mississippi, has gone from ginning as many as 20 farmers’ cotton to four.

Economic reports due this week include looks at home sales and economic growth. The National Association of Realtors tomorrow reports on sales of previously-owned homes for February. A decline is expected. Reports on durable goods orders and new home sales follow Wednesday. The Labor Department gives an update on new unemployment claims Thursday and a revision of third quarter GDP is due Friday.

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