Business Briefs – February 14, 2019

Average Tax Refunds Fall, Creating Political Flashpoint

WASHINGTON (AP) – The average tax refund and the total amount of refunds issued are down for a second week. That has the potential to intensify a political flashpoint seized by Democrats as proof that the Republican-written tax law hurts the middle class. The average refund in the second week of the filing season ended Feb. 8 was $1,949, down 8.7 percent from $2,135 a year earlier, according to IRS data released Thursday. Total refunds to date are down 23 percent to $22.2 billion, from $28.9 billion last year.

EPA Too Slow on Limiting Toxic Chemicals, Critics Say

The Environmental Protection Agency says it will move toward setting safety limits for some highly toxic chemicals contaminating drinking water across the country. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Thursday in Philadelphia released a plan for dealing with long-lasting substances called PFAS, which have been linked to health threats including cancer and decreased fertility. Environmentalists say the EPA hasn’t moved fast enough.

China, U.S. Open Trade Talks as Beijing Says Exports Rebound

BEIJING (AP) – Chinese and U.S. negotiators have opened talks on resolving a vexing trade war as Beijing said its exports rebounded in January despite President Donald Trump’s tariff hikes. Trump said the negotiations will help decide whether he goes ahead on March 2 with more penalty tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods. Economists and business groups say Beijing is looking to persuade Trump enough progress is being made to push back his deadline.

GE to Downsize Boston Headquarters, Reimburse State $87M

BOSTON (AP) – General Electric is downsizing plans for its world headquarters in Boston. The company announced Thursday that it has reached an agreement with Massachusetts to sell its waterfront property, which is partly owned by the state. GE says that following the sale, it will pay back $87 million the state spent in luring the company to move its headquarters from Connecticut.

U.S. Mortgage Rates Fall to 12-Month Low; 30-Year At 4.37 Pct

WASHINGTON (AP) – U.S. long-term mortgage rates fell this week to a 12-month low, an enticement for prospective homebuyers in the upcoming season. Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac says the average rate on the benchmark 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage declined to 4.37 percent from 4.41 percent last week. The average rate this week for 15-year, fixed-rate loans eased to 3.81 percent from 3.84 percent.

Judge Critical of PG&E’s Wildfire Role Demands More Answers

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – A U.S. judge who has berated Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for its role in California wildfires demanded Thursday that the utility answer more questions about its efforts to clear trees and branches that can fall on its power lines and start fires.

Judge William Alsup asked the utility in a court filing if it was in compliance with a state law requiring it to clear vegetation within certain distances of electric lines.

The judge also questioned a part of the utility’s recently submitted wildfire mitigation plan. Alsup said it appears under the plan that PG&E would take more than 10 years to clear potentially dangerous vegetation where the fire threat is high. He asked PG&E if that timeline was correct.

PG&E spokesman James Noonan said in a statement that the company would respond to Alsup’s order by Feb. 22, the deadline the judge set.