Tuesday November 22nd, 2005
by: Ed Mayberry, November 22, 2005 5:11:00 am
The Texas Supreme Court ruled today that local property taxes used to pay for public schools amount to an unconstitutional statewide tax. Justices have given the state until June 1st to fix the system. By a seven-to-one vote, the state's highest civil court agreed with one of three arguments made against the state by hundreds of school districts. But justices also found that overall school funding is adequate and that poor districts have equal access to facilities funding. Justice Scott Brister was the only member of the nine-member court to dissent. Newly sworn justice Don Willett did not participate. Hundreds of property-rich and poor school districts sued the state, contending its method of paying for public education was inadequate. The state argued that great strides had been made in Texas Public Education over the past decade. It said changes to the funding system should be made by the legislature, not the courts.
The federal government is extending its hotel housing program by more than one month in ten states affected by Hurricane Katrina and Rita. People in Texas, as well as in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, California, Tennessee, Arkansas and Nevada now have until January 7th before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency stops paying their hotel bills. The previous deadline of December 1st had drawn criticism as being unfair to displaced evacuees--especially as the holidays approach. Hurricane Katrina slammed parts of the Gulf Coast in late August. Rita made landfall in Southeast Texas on September 24th. Several hundred thousand evacuees--mainly from Louisiana--made their way to Texas. Officials estimate more than 50,000 displaced people are still in Texas hotels and motels.
FEMA wants to transition some 50,000 Hurricane Katrina and Rita evacuees into longer-term apartments and houses. FEMA has established a toll-free Housing Locator Service at 800-762-8740. To be considered for a wider range of services and financial assistance, evacuees must first register with FEMA by January 11th, 2006. FEMA is still spending about $1.3 million a night on hotels and motels for evacuees. Most evacuees will have had their rate paid by FEMA through at least March 1st of next year, but many are eligible for the Individual Assistance Program, which could pay their rent through March of 2007. That number is 800-621-3362. Applicants may qualify for Other Needs Assistance, administered by the states, for expenses such as household items.
FEMA has approved a $1.38 million Public Assistance Grant to Texas as reimbursement to the Ark-Tex Council of Governments for providing temporary shelter to Hurricane Katrina evacuees. FEMA has also approved a $2.28 million grant to reimburse Lumberton for removal of debris throughout the city resulting from Hurricane Rita.
The Federal Flood Insurance Agency is resuming payments to flood victims, now that President Bush signed a bill increasing the agency's borrowing authority to $18.5 billion. Bush signed the bill late Monday that Congress has passed last week after he returned from Asia. The agency had run out of funds because of hurricane-related claims. FEMA had advised the 96 insurance companies that sell flood policies to stop payments to policyholders until the agency was authorized to borrow more money. There have been at least 204,700 claims for Katrina, 13,300 from Rita and 12,800 from Wilma. Tropical Storm Alison in 2001 generated more than 30,000 claims.
Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has released a new directory of federal and state programs to provide financial resources to communities impacted by the hurricanes. The directory, found on the comptroller's Web site, highlights 20 federal and state programs that provide grants and loans to local governments and businesses to replant crops, repair damaged infrastructure and provide job training. Strayhorn says federal reimbursements and short-term disaster recovery programs help get local governments and businesses running again, but other programs offer resources to rebuild.
The progress being made in restoring offshore natural gas facilities damaged by hurricanes likely won't bring down the cost to consumers. The head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says that's because demand continues to outpace supply. FERC Chairman Joseph Kelliher says gas production that's been disrupted along the Gulf Coast has gone from 54 percent of normal output three weeks ago to 32 percent now. While that's significant progress, the remaining damage continues to disrupt supply. Kelliher says he doesn't think gas prices will "go back to the level they were a few years ago.'' Twenty percent of U.S. natural gas supply comes from the offshore facilities in the Gulf. Kelliher says what people pay to heat their homes with natural gas this winter will depend on further recovery work, the weather and conservation efforts.
A provision in a pension reform bill that passed the Senate last Wednesday would allow Enron workers enrolled in a 401(k) plan at least six months before their company went bankrupt to boost their contributions to an Individual Retirement Account. Former workers could contribute up to $7,000 a year to a tax-advantaged IRA, where the current limit is $4,000. Congress is considering the help for former Enron employees to catch up on their retirement savings. The language was not included in legislation in the House, so the catch-up allowance would have to be negotiated in a Houston-Senate conference committee.
It was designed to protect against pirates. But now Sony is being accused of burdening computers with spyware. The Attorney General of Texas has sued Sony over the XCP technology the company has embedded in some of its music CD's. The software prevents buyers of the CD from making repeated copies by installing itself on the computer and monitoring what the user does with the disc. Critics say the technology leaves computers vulnerable to hackers. Last week the company recalled the CD's, after critics complained about the practice. A California-based digital rights group has also sued Sony, saying the software secretly reports what music the computer is playing. In addition, removing the software--if you can find it--can disable the computer's optical drive.
Phone customers will start seeing a new AT&T logo design with their December monthly bill, but only on the envelopes. The invoice will bear the new logo beginning in February. The new corporate logo, unveiled on the new AT&T's first full day of business, is a variation on the familiar AT&T blue globe with the company's name just below. The new company was formed by the SBC Communications purchase of its former parent company, completed last Friday. Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre unveiled the new logo at the headquarters of the new AT&T in San Antonio. About 50,000 SBC and AT&T vehicles will eventually sport the new logo, as well as 6,000 buildings and 40,000 uniforms and hardhats. The rebranding of SBC's services will happen after all legal and regulatory name-change filings are complete.
The Greater Houston Builders Association unveils its first new corporate logo in 65 years, as it prepares to roll out a branding program in early 2006. The GHBA is a nonprofit organization for home builders, developers and remodelers. The group represents about 110,000 jobs in the region and $9 billion in local income.
The world's largest retail trade association says the holiday season looks brighter than it first predicted. The National Retail Federation is raising its growth forecast for the Christmas season to six percent, from its five percent forecast announced back in September. An economist for the trade group says things looked gloomier two months ago. Katrina had just hit and oil prices were higher. But since then, the federation has seen stronger-than-expected retail sales in October and falling gasoline prices. Total retail sales for last year's November-December period rose 6.7 percent compared to the previous year.
Texas is getting almost $26.5 million to help dozens of counties pay the cost of detaining illegal immigrants. The funding was announced by U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. She says the money from the Justice Department will assist 96 counties. Hutchison says she's pleased with the funding for local communities, but says a way must be found to ease the burden permanently. The Texan says our borders must be secured.
The cost of birth and death certificates in Texas will go up starting December 1st. The Texas Department of State Health Services is increasing the fees to help pay for converting paper and microfilm records to electronic files. Birth certificate fees will increase from $11 to $22. Death certificate fees will go up from $9 to $20. The state needs to convert some 48 million records dating back to 1903. The $18 million project will include birth, death, marriage records and other vital documents. State officials say the project is necessary to protect records from floods, fires and other catastrophes.
Fresh Brew Group USA has sold its office coffee service division to Filterfresh Coffee Services, which is the U.S. division of Montreal-based Van Houtte. Fresh Brew will continue to expand its food service hospitality and vending businesses. The company is affiliated with Crispy Choice, a frozen-to-oven vended food service.
Crude oil prices have edged above $58 a barrel, as a winter storm heads for the northeastern United States. Forecasts for a blast of winter during the Thanksgiving period are boosting expectations that demand for heating oil will grow over the next few weeks. Light, sweet crude for January delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange rose 85 cents to $58.55 a barrel. While crude prices are well below the all-time high of $70.85 set August 30th, they remain around 20 percent higher than a year ago.
Natural Resource Partners has acquired coal reserves in Ohio and Pennsylvania for $29 million from subsidiaries of American Financial Group. Houston-based Natural Resource Partners owns and manages coal properties in Appalachia, the Illinois Basin and the Powder River Basin.
Woodlands Development is donating about 69 acres of land to the Conroe Independent School District for use as wetlands mitigation, according to the Houston Business Journal. The land is east of I-45 near Harper's Landing. In order to develop a proposed sports stadium on the South Montgomery site, CISD is required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to replace the wetlands.