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Last Update on March 31, 2015 17:42 GMT

HOME PRICES

WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. home price increases continued to rise at a steady pace in January, as the housing market deals with affordability problems and few properties listed for sale.

The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index rose 4.6 percent in January compared with 12 months earlier. That is up from growth of 4.4 percent in December.

Few Americans have listed their homes for sale, with the tight inventory keeping prices higher. Robust hiring and low mortgage rates have raised the possibility of stronger sales, yet home prices have appreciated at a significantly faster pace than wages.

The Case-Shiller index covers roughly half of U.S. homes. The index measures prices compared with those in January 2000 and creates a three-month moving average. The January figures are the latest available.

CONSUMER CONFIDENCE

WASHINGTON (AP) -- An improving job market drove U.S. consumer confidence higher this month after a dip in February.

The Conference Board's consumer confidence index rose to 101.3 in March from revised 98.8 reading in February.

The business group takes into account expectations for the future and consumers' assessment of current conditions. Consumers were more optimistic about the future, but a little less impressed with current economic conditions.

Over the past year, employers have added nearly 3.3 million jobs, the fastest 12-month pace of hiring since 1998. Consumers are certainly acting more confident: Their spending rose at a 4.4 percent annual rate from October through December, the fastest pace in eight years.

OBAMA-UNIONS

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama has vetoed a congressional measure blocking the National Labor Relations Board from streamlining the process for union elections.

The labor board finalized a rule last December that eliminates a previous 25-day waiting period between the time when an election is called and when the election is held.

Republicans and business groups opposed the rule, arguing that it would limit the ability of businesses to prepare for union elections.

They also said workers wouldn't have enough time to make informed decisions about whether to join a union.

Obama on Tuesday called the labor board's changes "common sense" and "modest" and he vetoed a measure the Republican-controlled Congress sent him nullifying the rule.

The NLRB is an independent federal agency. The rule is set to take effect April 14.

SUPREME COURT-MEDICAID LAWSUIT

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court says private sector health care companies cannot sue to force states to raise their Medicaid reimbursement rates to keep up with rising medical costs.

The justices ruled 5-4 Tuesday that the medical companies have no private right to enforce federal Medicaid funding laws against states if Congress has not created such a right.

A 2009 lawsuit against Idaho claimed the state was unfairly keeping Medicaid reimbursement rates at 2006 levels despite studies showing that the cost of providing care had gone up. Lower courts agreed and the increased reimbursements cost Idaho an additional $12 million in 2013.

But the Supreme Court sided with state officials, saying it's up to the federal agencies that oversee Medicaid to decide whether a state is in compliance with reimbursement rules.

SUPREME COURT-SPIDER-MAN TOY

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Spider-Man's latest adventure is taking him through the strange and mysterious world of patent law.

The Supreme Court was snarled in a web of legal arguments Tuesday over whether an inventor can keep collecting royalties on a Spider-Man toy even after his patent expired.

The dispute involves a popular Web Blaster toy that lets children shoot foam string from a glove, much like the web-shooting super hero.

Inventor Stephen Kimble sold his patent on the toy to Marvel Entertainment in 2001, but Marvel stopped making payments in 2010 when the patent expired.

Kimble wants the high court to overrule a half-century-old case that says a licensing agreement cannot pay royalties after a patent ends. But most of the justices did not seem receptive to doing that.

TRUCK TIRE DANGER

DETROIT (AP) -- There's a little-known danger on the nation's roads from truck tires.

Nearly all truck tires are built for a maximum sustained speed of 75 miles an hour. That's been the standard since the middle of last decade, when drivers across the vast majority of the U.S. were allowed to go no faster than 65 or 70.

But many tractor-trailers are driven faster than that. Fourteen states, mainly west of the Mississippi River, now have speed limits of 75, 80 and even 85 miles an hour in part of Texas. Some of those states acted without consulting the tire industry.

Safety advocates and tire experts say habitually driving faster than a tire's rated speed can generate excessive heat that damages the rubber, which can lead to wrecks and blowouts.

Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration closed an investigation into blowouts involving certain Michelin tires after determining that truck operators, not the tires, were at fault. An investigator wrote that exceeding the 75 mile-an-hour rating was the most likely cause in all 16 complaints examined.

The blowouts resulted in three crashes but no injuries.

FRANCE-PLANE CRASH-LUFTHANSA

BERLIN (AP) -- Lufthansa says its insurers are setting aside $300 million to deal with possible costs resulting from last week's crash of a Germanwings jet in the French Alps, in which 150 people died.

Lufthansa spokeswoman Kerstin Lau confirmed a report on the set-aside in the daily Handelsblatt on Tuesday. She said $300 million is the amount currently reserved to deal with "all costs arising in connection with the case."

Last week, the company offered immediate aid of up to 50,000 euros ($54,250) per passenger to relatives of the victims. Those payments are separate from eventual compensation payments.

Prosecutors believe, based on data from the cockpit voice recorder, that the Airbus A320's co-pilot locked his captain out of the cockpit and deliberately crashed Flight 9525 from Barcelona to Duesseldorf last Tuesday.

Lufthansa said Tuesday that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz informed his flight school in 2009 that he had had a "serious depressive episode." Lufthansa says the note was found in emails that Lubitz sent to the Lufthansa flight school when he resumed his training after an interruption.

The airline said it has provided the documents to prosecutors and declined to make any further comment.

UNITED STATES-SYRIA

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. is imposing new sanctions on Syria's government aimed at blunting its weapons programs and pushing it into negotiations with rebels.

The Treasury Department's action targets Batoul Rida, a Syrian central bank official, and three "front companies" that help fund Syria's development of ballistic missiles and nonconventional weapons.

It cites Rida's involvement in cash transfers with U.S.-sanctioned institutions that enable the government's "military campaign against the Syrian people." One of the companies is based in Syria; two are in Lebanon.

The Treasury Department's sanctions chief, Adam Szubin, says Syrian President Bashar Assad's government is a "gross violator of human rights" and engages in "dangerous weapons proliferation."

The U.S. called for Assad to leave power four years ago. But Syria's civil war shows no sign of abating.

CHEMICAL SPILL-WEST VIRGINIA

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Freedom Industries and state regulators have signed an agreement for a cleanup of the site of a 2014 chemical spill into the Elk River.

The cleanup will be done through the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection's Voluntary Remediation Program.

The voluntary remediation agreement sets deadlines for Freedom to submit reports and work plans to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The company's first deadline is April 20, when it must submit a report on an initial site investigation and interim measures.

A work plan for a human health and ecological risk assessment is due in the third quarter of 2015.

The January 2014 spill at a storage site in Charleston spurred a tap-water ban for 300,000 people for days.

MINNTAC LAYOFFS

US Steel to idle part of Minntac; 680 layoffs expected

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- U.S. Steel plans to idle part of its Minntac plant in northeastern Minnesota, resulting in layoffs for about 680 workers.

It's the latest symptom of the downturn in the American steel and iron mining industry. U.S. Steel cites high steel imports, dumping and low steel prices.

U.S. Steel spokeswoman Courtney Boone says the layoffs at the Minntac plant in Mountain Iron are temporary, but the company can't speculate how long they'll last. Mountain Iron is about 200 miles north of Minneapolis.

Earlier this month U.S. Steel said it would idle its Keetac plant in Keewatin effective May 13, resulting in 412 workers laid off. And Magnetation announced in February that it was shutting down its Keewatin plant, resulting in about 20 job losses.

FAST FOOD-LABOR

NEW YORK (AP) -- Fast-food labor organizers are expanding the scope of their campaign for $15 an hour and unionization, this time with a day of actions including college campuses.

Kendall Fells, organizing director for Fight for $15, said Tuesday that the protests will take place April 15 and include actions on about 170 college campuses, as well as cities around the country and abroad.

Among those joining fast-food workers and their supporters will be home health care aides and child care and Wal-Mart workers, he said. The plans are a continuation of a campaign that began in late 2012.

The push is being spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union and has included demonstrations around the country to build public support for raising pay for fast-food workers.

CHEAPER COMPUTERS

NEW YORK (AP) -- Microsoft is making a cheaper version of its Surface Pro 3 tablet computer in an effort to reach students and budget-conscious families.

The new $499 version will have a smaller screen -- 10.8 inches rather than 12 -- a slower processor, and the built-in kickstand won't be as flexible, just three angles rather than the unlimited positions offered on the Pro 3. But the Pro 3 ranges from $799 to $1,949.

A keyboard cover, one of the Surface's distinctive features, will cost $129 extra. Microsoft bills the Surface line as a laptop replacement when used with the cover.

Microsoft Corp. expects to ship the new device around May 5. Advance orders starting immediately.

CHARTER COMMUNICATIONS-BRIGHT HOUSE

STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) -- Charter Communications Inc. is buying fellow cable operator Bright House Networks LLC in a deal valued at $10.4 billion.

Charter is the fourth-largest cable operator in the U.S, while Bright House is the sixth biggest.

The business will be conducted through a partnership, with Charter owning 73.7 percent and Advance/Newhouse -- the parent company of Bright House -- owning 26.3 percent.

Bright House serves customers in Florida, Alabama, Indiana, Michigan and California.

The transaction is subject to conditions including Charter shareholder approval, the expiration of Time Warner Cable's right of first offer for Bright House and the closing of Charter's previously announced deal with Comcast.

KRAFT-DIETITIANS

NEW YORK (AP) -- A program to put a dietetics group's "Kids Eat Right" logo on Kraft Singles will reach an early expiration date after an uproar among dietitians.

Kraft Foods says it and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics decided to end the partnership because "misperceptions are overshadowing the campaign."

The decision comes after a petition by dietitians called for an end to the partnership, saying the putting the logo on packages amounted to an endorsement of the cheese product.

Kraft and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics said their partnership was intended to raise awareness about inadequate calcium and vitamin D intake in kids.

The logo will start appearing on products this week and will likely remain on shelves until at least July because packaging until then has already been manufactured.

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