Tuesday PM October 6th, 2009

Holiday sales decline predicted…Public Citizen sues Texas regulators to force consideration of global warming when approving new coal-fired power plants…TXDOT declares Trans-Texas Corridor dead…

The usually bullish National Retail Federation isn't painting a rosy picture about holiday sales. The NRF predicts a one per cent decline in total sales for November and December combined. The NRF is less optimistic this year than several other groups offering holiday sales forecasts. Consumers had already cut back during the fall back-to-school season. So far, holiday 2009 forecasts range from as weak as a 3.5 per cent decline from Wells Fargo Senior Economist Mark Vitner to predictions at the top end from Deloitte Research and TNS Retail forward that sales will be the same as last year. Job security is a key factor and the latest government jobs report fueled more concerns. The figures showed unemployment ticking up to 9.8 per cent in September, a 26-year-high.


The latest ExecuNet Recruiter Confidence Index anticipates increased demand for executive talent during the next two quarters. ExecuNet says there's a consensus among the nation's top recruiters that the worst is over in the executive employment market. This marks the RCI's second highest reading in the past 13 months.


An activist group is suing Texas environmental regulators in an effort to force them to consider global warming when approving construction of new coal-fired power plants. Public Citizen sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in Travis County. Its lawsuit asks that no more air-pollution permits be granted without taking carbon dioxide emissions into account. Texas leads the nation in those greenhouse gas emissions, and currently there's no limit on them in the permitting process. The group contends greenhouse gases should be included because of a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found carbon dioxide meets the Clean Air Act's definition of an air pollutant. TCEQ officials didn't immediately comment on the suit.


The Texas Department of Transportation is pulling the last plug on the Trans-Texas Corridor, Governor Rick Perry's embattled plan to build a toll road network across the state. The agency said earlier this year it was scaling down the project. Now, transportation officials say it's fully dead. Transportation Commissioner Bill Meadows broke the news to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Transportation officials plan to announce they've selected the "no build" option for part of the corridor that was to parallel Interstate 35. The development contract with a private company is being terminated. The news comes a day after Perry's Republican primary opponent, Senator Kay Bailey hutchison, got the endorsement of the Texas Farm Bbureau--a vocal opponent of the corridor.


The Obama administration says it will begin divvying up $8 billion designated for high-speed and other passenger rail projects sometime this winter. The money is a fraction of the rail aid sought by states. The Federal Railroad Administration said it has received 45 applications from 24 states totaling approximately $50 billion to advance high-speed rail corridor programs. The agency has also received 214 applications from 34 states totaling $7 billion for corridor planning and smaller projects, which could include trains traveling less then 100 miles per hour. Congress included the money in the $787 economic stimulus package approved earlier this year.


Democrats in Congress are trying to overturn another Supreme Court decision that makes it harder for some workers to prove employment bias. This time, they are taking aim at a 5-4 ruling from earlier this year that changed a long-standing interpretation of age discrimination laws. The court said workers must show age was the decisive factor in a demotion or layoff. Previously, older workers had to show only that age was one factor in the employment decision. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin is sponsoring a bill that would have the effect of reversing the ruling. Earlier this year, Congress passed a measure that gives workers more time to take their pay discrimination cases to court. That measure effectively reversed a 2007 Supreme Court decision that said workers had only 180 days to file pay discrimination lawsuits.


A top regional federal food stamps official says Texas should appoint one official to fix eliminating food stamp application backlogs and high error rates. William Ludwig is a Dallas-based regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition service. He tells the Austin American-Statesman that the recession is hurting food-stamp programs in all states, but he's unaware of any state having as much trouble as Texas. He blames the state's food stamp program woes to a "whole series of missteps, mismanagement over the last four years." That started with thousands of state workers being fired as part of a privatization effort. In Texas, about 41 per cent of the food stamp applications in September weren't processed by the federal deadline of 30 days for regular applications and seven days for emergency applications.


The Kazakh oil venture led by Chevron is asking the government of Kazakhstan to approve a boosted spending plan that would increase output at the country's largest oil producing field over the next seven years, according to Bloomberg News. TengizChevroil says output at the Tengiz deposit could increase by about 12 metric tons a year by the end of 2016.


Schlumberger has opened a new reservoir completions manufacturing center in Damman, Saudi Arabia. The Houston-based firm says it's a $25 million investment in manufacturing equipment, facility lease and inventory for production of customized downhole reservoir completions equipment.


The Dallas lawyer in charge of jailed billionaire financier R. Allen Stanford's businesses is asking a federal court to pay his team nearly $9 million for three months of work. Court-appointed receiver Ralph Janvey filed a motion with a federal court in Dallas last week, seeking almost $8.9 million in fees and expenses for work from June through August. Janvey and his team of lawyers and consultants are winding down Stanford's businesses and tracking down billions of dollars the government says went missing in an alleged ponzi scheme run by Stanford and his associates. Stanford, who is jailed in Houston, has denied the allegations. Last month, the court approved $20 million for Janvey's team for their work from mid-February through the end of May.


Two subsidiaries of KBR are being sued by 30 members of the West Virginia National Guard who claim they were exposed to a toxic chemical while guarding a water plant in Iraq. The members of the Moundsville-based 1092nd Engineer Battalion filed the lawsuit in Marshall County Circuit Court against Kellogg Brown & Root Services and KBR Technical Services. According to the lawsuit, the guardsmen guarded the water plant while KBR contractors repaired the facility in 2003. The lawsuit claims the guardsmen weren't told that they were being exposed to sodium dichromate, a chemical linked to cancer and other illnesses. KBR spokeswoman Heather Browne said she hadn't seen a copy of the lawsuit and declined to comment. KBR said in August that it wasn't responsible for the sodium dichromate at the site.


The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the appeal of an Alabama federal jury verdict that led to the awarding of more than $35 million to 1,424 current and former employees of Family Dollar stores. The decision by the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal means the decision awarding the employees for unpaid overtime wages will stand. The jury found in a 2006 trial in federal court in Tuscaloosa that North Carolina-based Family Dollar Stores. Classified many workers as managers even though their duties included tasks like mopping floors and unloading trucks. Family Dollar officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


San Antonio is being considered for a solar manufacturing plant to be built by a Chinese company, according to the San Antonio Express-News. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff says Yingli Green Energy is searching for a plant site, and San Antonio is on a short list of five cities. The firm could invest up to $20 million in the plans, bringing 315 jobs to the city. Yngli makes photovoltaic products, which uses solar cells to convert sunlight into electricity.


People who heat their homes with natural gas should spend about $105 less this winter than last season. Those using fuel oil or electric heat also will save. The Energy Information Administration said that lower fuel costs across the board and a milder winter should cut average heating costs for the upcoming winter season. The agency said households will pay on average $783 for natural gas and $1,821 for fuel oil. Households with electric heat will pay $933, and those using propane will spend $1,667. The agency cautions that actual household costs could vary depending on local weather conditions, the size and energy efficiency of homes and the efficiency of heating equipment.


Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the struggling dairy industry must be restructured to avoid cycles of boom and bust. Vilsack spoke during a visit to South Dakota, less than a week after Congress announced a $350 million dairy bailout. Vilsack says he expects the U.S. Department of Agriculture to look at its price support and marketing programs to see if changes would help stabilize dairy prices. Dairy farmers benefited in recent years from higher milk prices and growing demand in countries like China. But demand fell off with the economic downturn, and wholesale milk prices began plummeting. Many farmers now say they can't sell their milk for what it costs to produce.


Arriving on-time was just a little bit easier for airline passenger traveling in August. The Transportation Department says 79.7 per cent of flights arrived on time in August. That's up from 78.4 per cent during August of last year, and 77.6 per cent in July. Dallas-based Southwest was the most punctual of the large carriers, with an on-time arrival rate of 82.8 per cent. Houston-based Continental, US Airways, and United also came in above average. Northwest and Airtran had the lowest on-time rate of the big carriers, both around 74 per cent. Airlines say the biggest cause of delays were when one late plane caused the next flight on the same aircraft to be late. Another cause was issues with the national aviation system such as airport operations, heavy traffic, and air traffic control.


The Houston Chronicle will begin publishing La Voz on Sundays rather than Wednesdays, beginning October 1st. That's their weekly Spanish-language newspaper. The Chronicle, meanwhile, is taking over all remaining distribution of USA Today beginning Monday. The Houston daily will deliver the national paper to hotels, airports, newsstands and retail outlets. The Chron prints USA Today locally, and also distributes the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Investor's Business Daily.


Japan's big name electronic manufacturers are readying flat-screen TVs that can show high-definition movies and video games in 3D for launch next year. At the country's biggest consumer electronics show that opened just outside of Tokyo all the major makers displayed 3D prototypes. Sony and Panasonic said they would bring their first models to market next year. The companies are plowing ahead even before there is much content available, with corporate spokesmen saying only that preparation is under way. Demonstrations at the exhibitions were mainly short clips of movies, nature scenes and sports.


Luxury retailer Neiman Marcus is unveiling its Christmas book with a nod to even affluent shoppers who are tightening their Gucci belts in the Great Recession. More than 40 per cent of the gifts in the catalog's 83rd edition cost less than $250, though they're not necessarily for everyone. New items include $75 plaid stockings, $235 Italian wool scarves and $95 nutcracker charms. Plenty of extravagant gifts offering shoppers escape from the tumult in the financial world remain, such as limited-edition $105,000 Jaguars, motorcycles for $73,000 and a $25,000 customized "cupcake car" made of fabric, wood and sheet metal and powered by a 24-volt electric motor.


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...