Monday AM, February 4th, 2008

Senate to vote on amendments to economic stimulus package...Relatives of BP workers killed in refinery explosion to speak in court...Illinois lawmakers angry over derailed FutureGen project...

The maneuvering continues over the Senate's version of an economic stimulus package. Key votes are set for today on proposals to add rebate checks for seniors and disabled veterans to the stimulus package passed by the House, along with extra jobless benefits. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid says he thinks the Senate plan has things the American people want. But Republican Leader Mitch McConnell warns the package could bog down with so many add-ons. The decision by Democratic leaders to put off votes until next week is seen as a tacit admission they haven't been able to muster the 60 votes needed to push through the plan approved by the Finance Committee. The timing of the vote could force three presidential candidates to return to Washington just hours before the Super Tuesday primaries, Senators Clinton, Obama and McCain.


Some workers injured in BP's Texas City plant explosion--as well as families of those killed--want a judge to reject a plea agreement. That agreement would end a criminal probe of the 2005 blast. The accident killed 15 workers and left about 170 people hurt. Several relatives of workers killed in the accident have asked to speak during a federal court hearing today in Houston. The agreement proposes BP pay a $50 million fine. BP and the Justice Department say the plea agreement is the harshest option available in assessing criminal punishment for the blast. Attorneys for the victims call the proposed fine "trivial'' and say the plea deal doesn't push to improve safety at the plant. BP says it's accepted responsibility, worked hard to improve plant safety and cooperated with the criminal investigation.


A day after the U.S. Department of Energy officially scrapped a futuristic, low-pollution power plant planned for central Illinois, angry state and local officials asked themselves what could have derailed the $1.8 billion project. And some experts questioned whether the government's new plan, which could result in more than one coal-fired power plant capturing and storing carbon dioxide, has enough money to accomplish more than FutureGen. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin says his state isn't going down without a fight. Durbin also accused Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman of "cruel deception'' by "creating false hope'' in a project that he did not intend to fund or support. The FutureGen Alliance--a coalition of power and coal companies--had chosen the Mattoon site in December over another site in Illinois and two in Texas for the virtually emissions-free power plant. Last month, it announced that the 275-megawatt prototype power plant would be built in Mattoon under a plan that called for the DOE to cover three-quarters of the cost. The site was chosen over Tuscola, Illinois, and two sites in Texas, Jewett and Odessa. So far, details about the new approach are few. The Federal Energy Department has said that it is frustrated by the project's ballooning costs. The DOE would not go into details, saying only that it planned an announcement within days. The DOE wants to hear what companies that might be part of the new plan believe might work best.

Officials who had been pushing for Texas to be selected as the home for a prototype near-zero emissions coal powered plant weren't surprised at news that the Department of Energy wanted out of the project. In the days leading up to its announcement on a site in December, the Futuregen Alliance took heat from the department, which wanted the alliance to slow down. Texas officials say that the project's steadily increasing cost and the alliance making its announcement despite DOE's advice, caused friction. Meanwhile, officials in Odessa and Jewett remain optimistic about clean coal technology having a future in Texas.


Last week's unemployment report offers a fresh sign that the economy is in danger of stalling. The Labor Department says employers cut 17,000 jobs in January, the first reduction in more than four years. Economists had predicted that employers would boost payrolls by around 70,000. The same report shows that the unemployment rate unexpectedly dipped slightly to 4.9 percent, from five percent. That's attributed to people leaving the labor force for various reasons. The figures suggest that employers have grown cautious as they try to cope with fallout from housing and credit problems and rising worry about the ailing economy. Job losses were widespread. Manufacturers, construction firms and a variety of professional and business services eliminated jobs in January, as did the government. Those cuts swamped job gains in education, health care, retailing and elsewhere. Wage growth also slowed, another indication that employers are tightening their belts.


Job growth at the executive level will remain resilient in many industries, according to ExecuNet. Demand for executive talent in the industries closest to the credit crunch, including real estate and financial services, may be slower, but the firm says it won't dry up completely. In other industries, the outlook for leadership job growth remains strong.


New Commerce Department figures show that consumers spent less last month than at any time in the past 15 months. Spending edged up just two-tenths of a percent in December, down sharply from a one percent gain in November. It was the weakest performance in this area since spending fell by one-tenth of a percent in September 2006. The report on spending confirms earlier reports by retailers that last year was the worst year for holiday spending in five years despite the best efforts of retailers to boost sales with discounted merchandise.


Amid the world of worry surrounding the broader U.S. economy, there's word of a slight pickup in manufacturing activity. The Institute for Supply Management says its January index rose more than two points to 50.7. Any number above 50 indicates growth. The report is stronger than expected. In a statement, ISM survey chief Norbert Ore says the report suggests "a return to the recent trend of slow growth in manufacturing.'' The previous report for December had indicated modest contraction in manufacturing.


Ground has been broken for the new Texas Children's Maternity Center on Main. The $575 million facility will contain 15 floors with 720,000 square feet of space, and will be connected to Texas Children's main hospital campus. The center is expected to be operational by 2011. The center expects to deliver at least 5,000 babies per year, including normal and high-risk deliveries.


Just two months after inaugurating its new service from George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Emirates Airlines has begun operating four additional weekly flights. Now the carrier offers daily non-stop service to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Emirates has been operating its previous three-times-a-week service at an average load factor of 80 percent. Over 70 percent of the airline's passengers are members of the international oil and gas industry.


American Airlines blames the recent stock market slump for last Friday's one-day retirement of 143 pilots. They say the 143 pilots retired for fear that pilots who kept working would see their retirement benefits reduced. Part of the pilots' pension plan fluctuates with the stock market. A clause in their contract lets them lock in the value of their retirement benefits for 90 days by filing for retirement. They can rescind their notice or go ahead and quit after the 90 days. The pilots also have a defined-benefit pension plan. Sue Gordon is a spokeswoman for the nation's largest airline. She says the number of retirements was high but about what the Airline expected. Fort Worth-based American has 12,000 pilots. American officials disclosed a week ago that they had canceled 28 flights in February--about one-tenth of one percent of its scheduled flights. That was in anticipation of having fewer pilots. Union officials have faulted the company for not hiring enough new pilots, but Gordon says American will have enough people to operate the remaining flights. She says the airline has told about 250 management pilots, including those who grade the performance of regular pilots, to be ready to fly.


Houston and Harris County have been selected as winners in the 2008 "100 Best Communities for Young People" by the American's Promise Alliance and Capital One. The region is eligible to apply for $300,000 in grants and a new community-built playground valued at $70,000. The alliance recognized the Houston area for creating a tremendous sense of family in a community with more than one million children.


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...