Thursday, January 3, 2013

Published:

New tax law includes tax breaks for race track owners, moviemakers, electric motorcycles

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Tucked into the "fiscal cliff" tax package approved by Congress are billions of dollars in tax breaks that should make the new year a lot happier for businesses of many stripes, including film producers, race track owners and the makers of electric motorcycles.

In all, more than 50 temporary tax breaks were renewed through 2013, saving businesses and individuals about $76 billion. Congress routinely renews the tax package, attracting intense lobbying -- and campaign donations -- from businesses and trade groups that say the tax breaks help them prosper and create jobs.

Businesses have grown used to many of the longstanding tax breaks, but they also have had to get used to the uncertainty of whether they will be renewed each year. This time around the tax breaks were allowed to expire at the end of 2011 as lawmakers struggled to reach consensus on a wide range of tax issues.

The package passed by Congress this week and signed by President Barack Obama renews the tax breaks retroactively, so taxpayers can claim them on both their 2012 and 2013 tax returns.

The biggest of the bunch, a tax credit for research and development, helps U.S. manufacturers compete against foreign competition, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. Another provision helps restaurants and retailers expand by allowing them to more quickly write off the costs, according to the National Restaurant Association.

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House re-elects Boehner speaker as 113th Congress begins; fiscal issues loom

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A new Congress opened for business Thursday to confront long-festering national problems, deficits and immigration among them, in an intensely partisan and crisis-driven era of divided government. "The American dream is in peril," said House Speaker John Boehner, re-elected to his post despite a mini-revolt in Republican ranks.

Moments after grasping an oversized gavel that symbolizes his authority, Boehner implored the assembly of newcomers and veterans in the 113th Congress to tackle the nation's heavy burden of debt at long last. "We have to be willing -- truly willing -- to make this right."

Also on the two-year agenda is the first significant effort at an overhaul of the tax code in more than a quarter century. Republicans and Democrats alike say they want to chop at a thicket of existing tax breaks and use the resulting revenue to reduce rates.

There were personal milestones aplenty as the winners of last fall's races swore an oath of office as old as the republic.

Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Deb Fischer of Nebraska were among the newcomers sworn in, raising the number of women in the Senate to a record 20. Tim Scott of South Carolina became the first black Republican in the Senate in more than three decades.

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NY county clerk says releasing gun permit information to newspaper could put public in danger

NEW YORK (AP) -- A New York county clerk justified his refusal to release the names and addresses of handgun permit holders to a newspaper, saying it would give stalkers and thieves a convenient roadmap to target potential victims -- and determine whether they have a gun.

"This certainly puts my public in danger," Putnam County Clerk Dennis Sant said Thursday following a news conference in which he was backed by the county executive and other elected officials.

The Journal News, which serves New York City's northern suburbs, sparked an outcry last month when it published clickable online maps with the names and addresses of pistol permit holders in Rockland and Westchester counties.

When the newspaper requested the same information from Putnam, Sant initially said the county needed more time to fulfill the request. Sant balked entirely this week, saying the law gives him the prerogative to refuse to release public information if it endangers the public. Judges and police officers could be targeted by the people they put behind bars, he said. People with orders of protection have expressed concern to him about would-be attackers finding them through the database.

While anyone can come into his office and file the necessary paperwork to request information on individual permits, Sant said the difference is that the Journal News plans to publish the information in a way that makes it accessible to everyone, instantaneously.

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American missiles kill senior Taliban militant in Pakistan who fought US troops in Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD (AP) -- An American drone strike in Pakistan has killed a top Taliban commander who sent money and fighters to battle the U.S. in Afghanistan but had a truce with the Pakistani military, officials said Thursday.

While the death of Maulvi Nazir was likely to be seen in Washington as affirmation of the necessity of the controversial U.S. drone program, it could cause more friction in already tense relations with Pakistan because Nazir did not focus on Pakistani targets.

Nazir was killed when two missiles slammed into a house in a village in South Waziristan while he was meeting with supporters and fellow commanders. Eight other people were killed, according to five Pakistani security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

A U.S. official confirmed the death of Nazir, along with an unspecified number of "trusted deputies."

Nazir and those killed were "directly involved in planning and executing cross-border attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan, as well as providing protection for al-Qaida fighters in South Waziristan," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to describe casualties resulting from CIA counterterrorism actions.

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Government airstrikes on rebel-held suburbs show limits of opposition push to take Damascus

BEIRUT (AP) -- Twin airstrikes by government jets on a large, rebel-held suburb of Damascus on Thursday sheered the sides off apartment towers and left residents digging through rubble for the dead and wounded.

The bombing of Douma came amid a wave of attacks on rebellious districts of the Syrian capital, part of the government's efforts to keep rebel fighters out of President Bashar Assad's seat of power. Late Thursday, a car bomb exploded at a gas station inside the city itself, killing at least nine people, activists said.

Douma, the largest patch of rebel-held ground near Damascus, illustrates why the opposition's advance on the capital has bogged down. Despite capturing territory and setting up committees to provide basic services, the rebels lack the firepower to challenge Assad's forces and remain helpless before his air force.

That stalemate suggests the war will not end soon. The U.N. said Wednesday that more than 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011 -- a figure much higher than previous opposition estimates.

Rebels took control of Douma, a suburb of some 200,000 located nine miles (15 kilometers) northwest of Damascus, in mid-October 2011, after launching attacks on military posts throughout the city, activists said.

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US hiring shows signs of strength even as White House, Congress battle over budget

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. job market showed resilience in three reports Thursday, suggesting it may able to withstand a federal budget battle that threatens more economic uncertainty in coming months.

A survey showed private hiring increased last month, while layoffs declined and applications for unemployment benefits stayed near a four-year low. The data led some economists to raise their forecasts for December job growth one day before the government releases its closely watched employment report.

"The job market held firm in December despite the intensifying fiscal cliff negotiations," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "Businesses even became somewhat more aggressive in their hiring at year end."

The most encouraging sign came from payroll provider ADP. Its monthly employment survey showed businesses added 215,000 jobs last month, the most in 10 months and much higher than November's total of 148,000.

Economists tend to approach the ADP survey with some skepticism because it has diverged sharply at times from the government's job figures. The Labor Department releases its employment report Friday.

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Japanese cars, cheap loans, and appealing compacts inspire buyers to trade in

DETROIT (AP) -- It's not quite boom times for the U.S. auto industry. But it's getting there.

Sales of new cars and trucks rose 13 percent to 14.5 million in 2012. And if they climb much beyond that, they'll be closing in on a high set in 2005.

Cheap loans, a host of new cars and greater confidence in the economy are drawing buyers into showrooms. Plus, Americans who hung on to aging cars during the recession are ready to trade them in.

Here are the highlights and lowlights of 2012, and what's coming from the industry in 2013:

WINNERS

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Farm bill extension frustrates farm interests, evidence of lost congressional clout

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A patchwork extension of federal farm programs passed as part of a larger "fiscal cliff" bill keeps the price of milk from rising but doesn't include many of the goodies that farm-state lawmakers are used to getting for their rural districts.

House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders who spent more than a year working on a half-trillion-dollar, five-year farm bill that would keep subsidies flowing had to accept in the final hours a slimmed-down, nine-month extension of 2008 law with few extras for anyone.

With the new Congress opening Thursday, they'll have to start the farm bill process over again, most likely with even less money for agriculture programs this year and the recognition that farm interests have lost some of the political clout they once held.

"I think there's a lot of hurt feelings, that all of this time and energy was put into it and you've got nothing to show for it," said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said it even more bluntly on the Senate floor just after she learned that the bare-bones extension would be part of the fiscal cliff deal.

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Analysis: Martian meteorite from Sahara desert is older and contains more water than others

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Scientists are abuzz about a coal-colored rock from Mars that landed in the Sahara desert: A yearlong analysis revealed it's quite different from other Martian meteorites.

Not only is it older than most, it also contains more water, tests showed. The baseball-size meteorite, estimated to be 2 billion years old, is strikingly similar to the volcanic rocks examined on the Martian surface by the NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which found water-bearing minerals.

"Here we have a piece of Mars that I can hold in my hands. That's really exciting," said Carl Agee, director of the Institute of Meteoritics and curator at the University of New Mexico who led the study published online Thursday in the journal Science.

Most space rocks that fall to Earth as meteorites come from the asteroid belt, but a number can be traced to the moon and Mars.

Scientists believe an asteroid or some other large object struck Mars, dislodging rocks and sending them into space. Occasionally, some plummet through Earth's atmosphere.

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Rare river otter makes home in seaside bath facing Pacific Ocean in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A rapt crowd followed a trail of bubbles that zipped over the surface of a seaside pond in the ruins of a 19th century bath in San Francisco.

San Francisco's newest star -- the first river otter seen in the city in decades -- surfaced its whiskery head furtively, a mouth full of sea grass. The crowd oohed as large waves pounded rocks just offshore, a briny smell and chill in the air.

The otter ducked back under water and took the sea grass underneath a concrete remnant of the historic baths, where the animal was building a nest.

"We came here to see the baths and this was just a bonus," said Eliza Durkin, who brought her son Jonathan to the site for a school project on historic places.

Beyond tourists, the otter has mystified and delighted conservationists, who are piecing together clues to figure out how he got there. The furry creature was first spotted by birdwatchers in September and has since settled into the City by the Bay.