Thursday AM May 22nd, 2008

Tax-free Memorial Day weekend covers Energy Star appliances…Federal Reserve policymakers expect sharply lower economic growth, higher unemployment and inflation pickup this year…FCC negotiates with cell phone companies over cancellation fees…

A tax-free Memorial Day weekend passed by state lawmakers allows for the sales tax-free purchase of all appliances with Energy Star labels. Direct Energy's Lisa Dornan says the tax-free period covers a variety of appliances.

"It covers all Energy Star-qualified appliances with just a few exceptions, but things like air conditioning units that are--whether they're room or central units--that are priced under $6,000, clothes washers, ceiling fans, dehumidifiers, dishwashers, refrigerators that are priced under $2,000, programmable thermostats, as well as light bulbs. For instance, if someone were to replace ten incandescent bulbs with ten compact fluorescent bulbs, they would reduce their annual consumption by approximately 4,000 kilowatt hours, which is equal to a savings of $424 a year here in Texas."

This is the first time the tax-free holiday weekend for Energy Star appliances has been in effect for Texas.

"I would hope that a lot of people will take advantage of this. I think the awareness is certainly growing. We've seen a lot of retailers beginning to advertise specifically about the tax holiday. Here in Texas, approximately 33 percent of our electricity bills is for cooling, so certainly in the summer that creeps up definitely, as the temperatures rise. So taking a look at your air conditioning system, making sure that you've got a unit that is the proper size for the square footage of your home is very important. And making sure that it's got a SEAR reading, or rating, rather, that is, you know, up-to-date with the latest standards, as well."

Energy Star is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy.


Federal Reserve policymakers are expecting sharply lower economic growth, higher unemployment and an inflation pickup this year. The revised forecast reflects blows from the housing and credit debacles along with zooming energy prices. Even with the more downbeat outlook, Fed officials, in documents released Wednesday, left the impression that they would not be inclined to cut interest rates further. The decision in late April to reduce rates was a "close call," the documents said. The Fed hopes that its series of rate cuts since last September and the government's $168 billion stimulus package will help growth in the second half of this year. The documents indicate Fed officials viewed economic activity "as likely to be particularly weak in the first half of 2008; some rebound was anticipated in the second half of this year." Under the latest forecast, the Fed said it now believes GDP will grow between just 0.3 percent to 1.2 percent this year. That's lower than a previous outlook released in late February. It estimated growth between 1.3 percent and two percent.


The Women's Business Enterprise Alliance continues its Expo: Connections 2008 tradeshow at Reliant Center. The event for women-owned businesses and diversity managers is an opportunity for women business owners to present their companies to the leading companies of Houston. One-on-one sessions with major corporations are part of the two-day event.


The WorkSource and the Port of Houston are hosting a job fair midday today at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Applicants must pre-register at any of the 30 or so career offices of The WorkSource. More than 785,000 Texas jobs are related to activities at the port, according to a recent economic study.

The WorkSource is also partnering with Alvin Community College Career Services and the ACC Workforce Development Project to host the 2008 Job Expo in Pearland today. Some 40 employers in banking, manufacturing, retail and sales are taking part at the ACC Pearland College enter on North Grand Boulevard this afternoon.


People who want to bail out of their cell phone contracts could be getting a break from those sky-high cancellation fees. The Associated Press has learned that the Federal Communications Commission is quietly negotiating with phone companies for customer relief. At present, it can cost you $175 or more to cancel a cell phone contract early. One provision being negotiated would let you switch with no fee at all for the first 30 days or within ten days of getting your first bill. Another would pro-rate the fees over the life of the contract. The longer you stay with it, the less you would have to pay to cancel. As an incentive for the cell phone companies, the deal would let them off the hook in state courts where they're facing billions of dollars in lawsuits from angry customers. One of those angry talkers is Ric Causey of Allen. He says he got slapped with a bill for $600 when he tried to bail out of a Sprint contract on three phones because of poor reception./P>


The National Association of Home Builders says Indianapolis is holding onto its position as number one among the most affordable major U.S. housing market. The group's first quarter housing opportunity index finds that nationwide homes became more affordable for the third consecutive quarter. Along with Indianapolis, other markets toward the top of the list were Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, Ohio-Pennsylvania. And Grand Rapids-Wyoming, Michigan. The index tracks the percentage of homes sold in the area that are affordable for families earning median incomes during the quarter.


Time Warner says it will formally split off its cable TV business. That will give the media conglomerate a more than $9 billion windfall, allowing it to focus on cable network, entertainment and publishing operations. The separation with Time Warner Cable gets Time Warner out of the media distribution business altogether, in keeping with investor demands. The company announced its decision to split up last month and says boards of the two companies have agreed to financial terms. Time Warner Cable is the second-largest cable provider in the country after Comcast with about 13.3 million video subscribers. It has been a public company for more than a year, but Time Warner had held on to an 84 percent stake. The split, expected to close in the fourth quarter, must receive a favorable tax ruling from the IRS as well as other regulatory approvals and local franchise clearances.


As gasoline prices spiral higher, Ford is cutting its output. The automaker is further trimming production of big pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles in the face of falling demand. A Ford spokeswoman says Ford will mothball its Michigan truck plant in suburban Detroit for five weeks in June and July. Two people familiar with Ford's production plans also say the company plans to shut down its Louisville truck plant for four weeks in July. The people asked not to be named because that plan isn't public. Auto companies normally shut down their U.S. plants for two weeks in July to retool, but these closures will extend those shutdowns. The closures come on top of Ford's previously announced plan to cut North American production by ten percent in the current quarter.

General Motors's string of labor problems could soon come to an end with a tentative agreement at a key assembly plant in Kansas City, Kansas. GM reached the deal on a local contract with united auto workers Local 31 at the plant Tuesday evening, company spokesman Dan Flores said. About 2,500 workers have been on strike at the factory, which makes the hot-selling Chevrolet Malibu as well as the Saturn Aura, since May 5th. Although the UAW settled its national contract with GM last fall, local contracts that govern work rules, overtime and other items are negotiated at each location. Local 31 President Jeff Manning said workers will hear information about the deal today and then vote.

Honda will sell a new, improved and affordable gas-electric hybrid in the U.S., Japan and Europe starting in early 2009. The company's president says "green" cars, especially hybrids, will be a pillar of Honda's strategy for the next three years, starting this fiscal year that began April 1st. He did not say what the price of the vehicle would be. But he said the new hybrid will be a five-door sedan seating five passengers, and it will feature new technology that reduces the size and weight of the hybrid system to increase fuel efficiency. Honda plans to sell 500,000 hybrids per year sometime after 2010, he said.


Congress is not expected to accept President Bush's veto of the $300 billion farm bill. Bush calls it a tax increase on regular Americans at a time of high food prices. But Democratic Senator Max Baucus says Congress has the votes to override the president and make the farm bill law. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that the measure will drastically increase nutrition initiatives that will help 38 million U.S. families put food on their tables. But White House Budget Director Jim Nussle says Bush rejected the bill because it increases federal spending. The president calls the legislation fiscally irresponsible. He says it gives away too much money to wealthy farmers. But his criticism didn't faze lawmakers from both parties who voted for increased crop subsidies, food stamps for the poor and other items to help their districts in an election year.


A Senate panel has narrowly voted to overturn EPA's decision to block California and more than a dozen other states from limiting greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. The bill by California Democrat Barbara Boxer passed the Environment and Public Works Committee 10 to 9, sending it to the full Senate. One committee Democrat, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, broke with others on his side of the aisle and voted "no." A Republican, John Warner of Virginia, voted "yes," allowing the bill to pass.


State environmental regulators say a Dallas-based company can dispose of Cold War-era radioactive waste at a site in west Texas where it is now being stored. Waste control specialists has worked for four years to secure the license that was approved by a 2-1 vote by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in Austin. The Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club opposed the license. The company still has about nine months of construction before it can begin burying about 3,700 canisters of the uranium byproduct waste.


Student loan companies are getting some federal help. In a letter obtained by the Associated Press, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says the government will buy some of the loans to free up money to allow the companies to issue new loans. Spellings writes that the plan will be a boost "for lenders who step up and make loans in this difficult environment." The loan companies have told Spellings and her department that the credit crunch and Congressional cuts in their subsidies have made it difficult for them to continue to provide loans under the Federal Student Loan Program.


The government is hoping to improve health care by spreading the word about hospital satisfaction rates. Federal officials will spend nearly $1.9 million on newspaper ads around the country. The full-page ads will disclose how patients rated their care at more than 2,500 hospitals nationwide. The ads will deal with two issues. They'll disclose the percentage of patients who always got help when they needed it. They'll also reveal the percentage of patients who got antibiotics one hour before surgery. That's an issue that reflects interest in curbing infections acquired at the hospital. The industry supports the effort, and it helped put the comparison questions together. The head of the Federation of American Hospitals says the information will lead to better care.


The city of Chicago is suing eBay and its StubHub unit. The suit stems from a dispute over collection of city amusement taxes on concert and sporting event tickets sold through the Web sites. Chicago's amusement tax ordinance includes Internet sites that resell tickets, but eBay, which bought StubHub last year, says the eight percent tax does not apply to it. It's not clear how much money is at stake. When the city first floated the idea of going after taxes for online sales in 2006, one official estimated the city could be losing $16 million a year on Internet-based sales by ticket resellers who don't collect the tax. The city is engaged in similar lawsuits against online companies that secure discount hotel room rates, like hotels.com, for not paying applicable taxes.


The CEO of Southwest Airlines has been elected chairman of the board of the Dallas-based carrier. Gary Kelly will also assume the title of Southwest president when Colleen Barrett's executive contract expires July 15th. Southwest founder Herb Kelleher and Barrett were honored, during their annual shareholders meeting, for more than 40 years of service to the company. Kelleher helped foster a fun-loving image for Southwest, at times dressing up like Elvis Presley to greet passengers--and even taking part in a celebrity boxing match. The carrier says Kelleher and Barrett will remain full-time Southwest employees through July 2013. Kelleher was an attorney in San Antonio when one of his clients, Rollin King, approached him about starting an airline to offer low-cost service between Texas cities. Southwest began flying in 1971.


Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...