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GAS PRICES DROP: The national average gasoline price dropped 1.6 cents per gallon this month, but motorists still will find the highest gas prices in advance of the Easter holiday in 16 years, according to AAA's monthly Fuel Gauge Report. The average price of self-serve regular unleaded gasoline is $1.271 per gallon, 9.1 cents more than one year ago.

SHELL, TEXACO SIGN DEAL: Shell Oil Co. and Texaco Inc. said Tuesday they will combine refining and marketing operations that account for 14 percent of gasoline sales in the Western and Midwestern United States. The two oil giants also said "significant progress" had been made in talks to join their eastern U.S. refining and marketing businesses with Saudi Refining Inc.

TAX SEASON SMOOTH SO FAR: Despite widely publicized computer problems, tax returns are being processed smoothly this year and the IRS has cut down on the frustrating busy signals encountered by many taxpayers, the General Accounting Office reported Tuesday. The Internal Revenue Service has answered 11.3-million calls in the first two months of this year, up from 9-million calls in the same period in 1996.

FOOD LION FIGHTS APPEAL: Food Lion Inc. asked a U.S. District Court in North Carolina to uphold the $5.5-million in damages a jury awarded it from ABC, according to Bloomberg News. ABC in January was ordered to pay Food Lion for a 1992 undercover report on PrimeTime Live. Food Lion disputes ABC's contention that laws on unfair and deceptive trade practices shouldn't apply in the case of its journalists' resumes and job application tactics.

AIRLINE TALKS RECESS: Negotiators for American Airlines and its pilots union have recessed contract talks and will resume Thursday in Washington, D.C., in hopes of having a deal ready for the union's board meeting there Friday.

GOP CHANGES COMP TIME BILL: House Republican leaders agreed to soften a "comp time" bill Tuesday in hopes of enlisting the support of moderate lawmakers in both parties. Republicans say the measure, designed to make it easier for wage earners to choose time off instead of overtime pay, is an attempt to give workers greater flexibility in their work schedules. House leaders maneuvered as Republicans in a Senate committee forced approval of a separate bill on a party-line vote.

Tampa Bay/State

MAN WINS AGE-BIAS SUIT: A North Miami Beach man who claimed age discrimination was awarded more than $400,000 by a federal court jury in Fort Lauderdale in a suit accusing former colleagues of calling him "old man" and "senile," an attorney said. Lowinger had just turned 62 when he was fired from his job as general manager of JK Enterprises of Deerfield Beach and United Vision Group, its parent company, Palmer said. The company's attorneys could not be reached for comment.

PANTHERS SUED AGAIN: Florida Panthers Holdings Inc. was sued a second time by former shareholders who say board members profited by misleading investors about chairman Wayne Huizenga's plans for the company, according to Bloomberg News. The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, said directors of the hockey and hotel company loaded up on stock while telling shareholders the company would struggle for years. Instead, the company's diversified into more lucrative businesses, sending the stock soaring. Florida Panthers' officials couldn't be reached for immediate comment. They have said directors didn't purchase stock based on confidential information.

PCA MERGER KILLED: The $509-million deal is off between Sierra Health Services Inc. and Physician Corp. of America. Workers' compensation losses piled on top of regulatory objections Tuesday to kill the merger intended to form the nation's eighth-largest publicly held managed-care company.

Earnings

JABIL CIRCUIT INC.: The St. Petersburg-based circuit-board maker reported record net income of $11.1-million, or 58 cents a share, for the second quarter ended Feb. 28, compared with $6.3-million, or 34 cents a share, a year ago. Also, the company said it broke ground Tuesday for a new 150,000-square-foot plant in Penang, Malaysia.

DOW DOLLAR YIELD

30 industrials vs. Japan's yen 30-year U.S. bond

6896.56 122.43 6.96

-58.92 -0.23 +0.01

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