Tuesday PM January 11th, 2011

Greater Houston Partnership focuses on job creation in 2011…Verizon Wireless to start selling version of iPhone 4 in early February…Texas Comptroller’s Office conducts free state tax seminars this evening…


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The president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says the condition of American business is improving and that the White House is adopting a more favorable tone toward the private sector. But Thomas Donohue, in a speech at Chamber headquarters, said the Chamber supports the repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law and warned of a regulatory “tsunami” that could damage the business community’s ability to create jobs. Donohue also called for greater spending on public infrastructure, from roads and bridges to broadband capacity. deficit conscious Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, oppose additional government spending. His remarks placed the chamber, the country’s most influential trade association, at the center of Washington’s economic debate, making it both partner and antagonist to both the administration and Republicans.

Today marked the first meeting of the year for the Greater Houston Partnership. The session opened with a review of the region’s economic performance in 2010. As Andrew Schneider reports, outgoing Chairman Patrick Oxford sounded a hopeful note.

In his final remarks as chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership, Patrick Oxford said the region may finally be in recovery. He cited the latest state figures on job creation.

“2010 saw our region probably turn the corner from a very tough 2009. I say probably, we don’t have the final reports from the year, but we do have our last report from the Texas Workforce Commission stating that the Houston region had a net gain of 95 hundred jobs, year to year, November 2009 to November 2010. Those numbers aren’t nearly as good as we’re used to, that we’ve enjoyed over the last few years, but it’s a clear sign that our efforts are yielding results, and that we may have turned the corner on the recession.”

Oxford also credited the partnership and Houston’s congressional delegation for their role in job retention–specifically, for saving 6000 jobs at the Johnson Space Center from budget cuts. Andrew Schneider. KUHF News.

Larry Kellner and Patrick Oxford
Larry Kellner and Patrick Oxford

Businesses at the wholesale level trimmed their stockpiles in November for the first time in nearly a year, even though sales rose for a fifth consecutive month. The Commerce Department says wholesale inventories dipped 0.2 percent in November, the first decline since December 2009. Sales rose 1.9 percent after a 2.6 percent surge in October–the larges monthly gain since March. The November drop in inventories came as a surprise to economists, who had expected another increase. It will likely be viewed as a temporary setback and not the start of a trend in cutting back on stockpiles. Inventory rebuilding has been a major support to the economy over the past year.

Verizon Wireless says it will start selling a version of the iPhone 4 in early February, giving U.S. iPhone buyers a choice of carriers for the first time. Since it launched in 2007, Apple’s phone has been sold exclusively for AT&T’s network in the U.S., while most other countries had several carriers. Verizon Communications’ chief operating officer, Lowell McAdam, made in New York. He was joined by Apple COO Tim Cook, who calls it “the beginning of a great relationship between Verizon and Apple.” Sales are to begin February 10th with pre-orders starting on February 3rd. Apple issued its press release at 11:11 a.m. on January 11th, 2011, or 1/11/11. The arrival of the Verizon iPhone has been long expected.

Job openings dipped in November, the latest evidence that employers remain cautious about adding new workers. The Labor Department says employers advertised 3.25 million jobs that month, a drop of about 80,000 from October. Openings have risen by 900,000, or 39 percent, since the recession ended. But they are still below the 4.4 million openings that were advertised in December 2007, when the recession began.

Retail employment experienced a net gain of 646,300 jobs between October and December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, that’s a 28.9 percent improvement over 2009’s seasonal hiring.

The share of Americans who made a long-distance move dropped to a record low last year as many young adults, struggling without jobs, opted to stay put rather than relocate to other parts of the U.S. New census figures show about 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, or more than 38 million people, made some kind of move to a new home. Only in 2008 was the overall mobility rate lower, at 11.9 percent. The share of moves across states fell to 1.4 percent, or roughly 4.3 million people. It was the lowest level since the government began tracking movers in 1948. Census data show large metropolitan areas in sun belt states continued to attract some new residents, but at a slower pace.

Federal job bias complaints climbed to record levels last year, led by a surge in workers claiming discrimination based on disability. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says charges of disability discrimination rose by about 17 percent. Overall, the agency received nearly 100,000 claims during the 2010 fiscal year. That’s a seven percent increase and the highest number in its 45-year history. The spike in disability claims began in the months after Congress approved changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2009. The changes made it easier for people with treatable conditions like epilepsy, cancer or mental illness to claim they are disabled. Discrimination claims increased in other categories too. Race discrimination claims rose seven percent, while retaliation claims jumped eight percent.

The people in Texas who depend on the state for support or employment may be in for tougher times. Even when the economy is healthy, Texas spends as little as possible on state services. Now, according to new estimates, the state must overcome a $15 billion budget shortfall. Other states, including California and Illinois, are exploring new ways to raise revenue to address their budget problems. But Republicans who won larger legislative majorities in the fall elections say they can make up the difference will new budget cuts in Texas. Governor Rick Perry says the solution is simple: the state will have to live within its means. But some democrats argue that the budget has already been cut to the bone, and many people and important services will suffer.

A presidential panel investigating the Gulf oil spill says that the oil industry, Congress and the Obama administration need to do more to reduce the chances of another large-scale disaster. That’s the primary conclusion of the independent panel assembled by President Barack Obama, which released its final report. The commission recommends increasing budgets and training for the federal agency that regulates offshore drilling; increasing the liability cap for damages when companies drill offshore; dedicating 80 percent of fines and penalties from the BP spill to restoration of the Gulf; and lending more weight to scientific opinions by other federal scientists in decisions about drilling. The panel said Congress should draft legislation to create within the Interior Department an independent safety agency and a separate environmental office to evaluate the risks of oil drilling to natural resources. U.S. regulations for offshore drilling should be at least as stringent as those in other oil-producing nations and require oil companies to adopt safety procedures common elsewhere but lacking in the Gulf, it said. Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, says that the department already has “undertaken an aggressive overhaul” to increase safety and ensure responsible oil and gas development. The panel also called for an industry-led safety institute, similar to the one created by nuclear power producers after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. The oil industry and government have taken numerous steps in an effort to improve safety since the blowout. BP fired its executive responsible for deep-water wells. The company also created a new unit to police safety practices in all of BP’s technical operations, while the federal government imposed new regulations and a moratorium on deep-water drilling. It later lifted the moratorium. Additionally, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Michael Bromwich established an internal affairs unit to expose improper relationships between companies and regulators. He has vowed to improve inspections, and required operators to show that they are prepared for a potential blowout and massive oil spill. New drilling proposals also will have to undergo more thorough environmental reviews, and meet new safety standards that apply to all deep-water operations. Part of the problem has been with Congress and successive administrations that have not provided the agency with the resources needed to carry out its mandate. Fixing that problem will be especially tough in a new Congress with a House dominated by Republicans keen on reducing budgets and the regulatory reach of government.

The administrator of BP‘s $20 billion oil spill claims fund continues his two-day swing across the Gulf Coast with visits to two southern Louisiana towns. Attorney Kenneth Feinberg will meet with residents, business owners and fishermen in LaFitte and Houma. Feinberg was greeted by angry claimants Monday in Mississippi and Louisiana who say they’re not being compensated enough, or not at all, for BP’s April oil well blowout that killed 11 workers and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. He promised fairness, speed and more transparency in the process. Feinberg has been criticized for months for his administration of the Gulf coast claims facility, which was set up to dole out BP’s money to oil spill victims. He says he’s doing the best he can.

The Coast Guard says crews have finished clearing the Houston Ship Channel of beef fat that leaked from a tank on shore. Petty Officer Richard Braham says the cleanup was completed Monday, six days after some of the 250,000 gallons of leaking fat reached the water. Brahm says the ship channel is open and traffic is moving. The leak was detected January 4th, forcing the temporary closure of part of the channel. The Coast Guard said about 15,000 gallons reached the channel through a storm drain. The liquid fat became solid when coming in contact with the cold water. The Coast Guard says the tank is owned by Jacob Sterns and Sons and the company cooperated on the cleanup.

The airlines are at it again, imposing the first fare increase of the new year and the third within a month. The increase on many domestic routes ranges from $4 to $10 per roundtrip ticket, depending on the length of the flight. Southwest Airlines boasts about low fares, but it appears to be the prime mover behind the latest price hike. CEO Rick Seaney says after other airlines made modest increases on flights in the Midwest last week, Southwest jumped in and raised fares across most of its routes. Other airlines then matched the broader fare increase.

United and Continental customers with flight plans affected by sever winter weather forecast for the northeast may reschedule their itinerary with a one-time date or time change without additional fees. Refunds in the original form of payment may be requested for canceled flights. Weather conditions are expected to cause delays and cancellations at Continental’s New York hub at Newark Liberty International Airport for travel between through Wednesday.

The government says there were no airplanes stuck on the ground for more than three hours in November–the second straight months airlines avoided long delays. That’s little comfort to all the travelers stranded by huge snow storms that grounded thousands of flights in December. The government won’t report those statistics until next month. In November, the largest U.S. airlines ran fewer flights on-time than a year earlier. Their average on-time rate was 83.2 percent in November, down from both the prior month and a year ago. Airlines also canceled more flights in November than a year earlier, but less than in October. October was the first month there were no three-hour-plus delays since the government started tracking them in 2008.

American Airlines says a Texas state court judge temporarily blocked reservations-system operator Sabre from downplaying American flights in search results provided to travel agents. The airline sued Sabre, saying it could lose “countless sales” if Sabre were allowed to favor other airlines in flight listings. The airline says the court in Fort Worth granted American’s request for an injunction to block Sabre until the two sides can argue the merits of the case. The ruling is the latest blow in an escalating fight over how airline tickets are sold.

The Texas Comptroller’s Office is conducting free state tax seminars in Houston this evening at two Houston locations to answer questions about state taxes. One is set for this evening at the Comptroller’s Houston Southwest Field Office on Harwin, and a second seminar takes place at the Northwest Field Office on North Loop West.

TXU Energy is opening call centers in Abilene and Lubbock. The Dallas-based electric provider announced the new call centers will mean about 500 jobs. TXU currently has a call center in Irving. David Hennekes, who is TXU’s vice president for residential markets, says the additional call centers will allow the company to better respond to customers. TXU has more than two million customers in Texas.

A Federal Reserve official says the Fed may need to scale back its $600 Treasury billion bond-buying program if the economy grows more quickly than expected. Charles Plosser, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and a voting member this year on the Fed’s main policymaking group, worries that the Fed’s program may soon “backfire on us” and spur inflation if “we don’t begin to gradually reverse course.” Plosser has repeatedly spoken out against the bond-buying program announced November 3rd. He has raised concerns that the risks–namely the potential for unleashing inflation–could outweigh any benefits to the economy. His remarks came in a speech prepared for delivery in Philadelphia. The Fed will review the program at its next meeting on January 25th through the 26th.

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