BC-US--Business Features Digest, US

The business news enterprise package planned through Dec. 18. For comments or questions, call Joseph Pisani at 212-621-1975. For questions about photos, call ext. 1900. For questions about graphics, call ext. 7636. Repeats of stories are available from http://apexchange.com or the Service Desk, 1-800-838-4616.

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FISCAL CLIFF:

FISCAL CLIFF-BUSINESS TAXES

WASHINGTON â¿¿ President Barack Obama's plan to increase taxes on top earners would have only a small impact on the economy, according to congressional estimates. But don't tell that to the 940,000 small business owners who would get hit by it. Together, they are expected to account for more than half the $1.3 trillion in business income reported on individual returns next year. That, their Republican allies say, makes them a big engine for economic growth and job creation. By Stephen Ohlemacher.

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WALL STREET WEEK AHEAD

NEW YORK â¿¿ With higher tax rates for stock dividends expected to kick in Jan. 1, some companies are declaring special payments to shareholders before the end of the year. It sounds great for investors, but beware: Some companies are borrowing a lot of money to do it, resulting in at least one credit downgrade, and others are doing it primarily to reward large shareholders, including their own directors. By Daniel Wagner.

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SUPERSTORM SANDY:

SUPERSTORM-BOARDWALKS

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. â¿¿ Coastal areas of New Jersey and New York that lost their boardwalks to Superstorm Sandy's surge are racing to rebuild them in time for tourist season â¿¿ in some places, without the boards. For reasons both practical and environmental, some communities are proposing to replace their wooden boardwalks with more durable synthetic materials or even concrete. That is raising objections from those who say nothing else looks, feels or even smells quite like a true wooden boardwalk. By Wayne Parry.

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OTHER FEATURES:

HEALTH OVERHAUL-NEW FEE

WASHINGTON â¿¿ Your medical plan is facing an unexpected expense, so you probably are, too. It's a new, $63-per-head fee to cushion the cost of covering people with pre-existing conditions under President Barack Obama's health overhaul. The charge, buried in a recent regulation, works out to tens of millions of dollars for the largest company health plans, and much of that is likely to be passed on to employees.

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GAS DRILLING-AIR POLLUTION

PITTSBURGH â¿¿ In the Colorado mountains, a spike in air pollution has been linked to a boom in oil and gas drilling. A thousand miles away on the plains of north Texas, there's a drilling boom, too, but some air pollution levels have declined. Opponents of drilling point to Colorado and say it's dangerous. Companies point to Texas and say drilling is safe. The answer appears to be that drilling can be safe and it can be dangerous. Industry practices, enforcement, geography and even snow cover can minimize or magnify air pollution problems. By Kevin Begos and Seth Borenstein.

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MADOFF FRAUD

NEW YORK â¿¿ When he was first told in 2008 about Bernard Madoff's epic Ponzi scheme, attorney David Sheehan had a response that now sounds inconceivable. "Who," he wondered, "is Bernie Madoff?" Since then, a trustee appointed to recover funds for Madoff victims and a battalion of lawyers headed by Sheehan have spent long days untangling the fraud. On the fourth anniversary of the financier's arrest, it's an international effort that shows no signs of slowing. By Tom Hays.

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ALCOHOL COPS

BELTSVILLE, Md. â¿¿ Deep in a secure laboratory just outside Washington sits a machine can that can smoke 20 cigarettes at once. Down the hall, a chemist tests shiny flecks from a bottle of Goldschlager to make sure they're real gold. Back at headquarters in downtown Washington, a staffer prepares for a meeting of the Tequila Working Group. These are the proud scientists, rule-makers and trade ambassadors of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, one of the federal government's least-known and most peculiar corners. The bureau, which collects taxes on booze and smokes and tells the companies that produce them how to do business, is one example of the specialized government offices threatened by Washington's current zeal for cost-cutting. If they look closely, the belt-tighteners will discover an agency whose responsibilities often appear to conflict â¿¿ a regulator that protects its industry from rules it deems unfair, a tax collector that sometimes cuts its companies a break. By AP Business Writer Daniel Wagner.

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CHINA'S REACH-MINING FARMLAND

GUNNEDAH, Australia â¿¿ Tony Clift's family has plowed the rich black soil of Australia's Liverpool Plains for six generations. The thought of selling never crossed his mind until a Chinese company came to town. Shenhua Watermark Coal offered to buy farms at unheard-of prices. The decision wasn't easy, Clift says. His pioneer ancestors settled the land in 1832. But farming is a business nowadays, and selling his 6,500 acres made business sense. Soaring coal prices fueled by China's economic growth have made mining parts of the Australian landscape far more lucrative than farming it. It's one example of how China's emergence as a global trading power may transform countries in ways never contemplated and not yet fully understood. By Rod McGuirk.

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SKOREA-CYBERPORN VIGILANTES

SEOUL, South Korea â¿¿ Moon Tae-Hwa stares at his computer, dizzy and nauseous from the hours of porn he's viewed online while his wife and children slept. He feels no shame â¿¿ only a righteous sense of mission. "I feel like I'm cleaning up dirty things," he says. Moon is among the most successful members of a squad of nearly 800 volunteers who help government censors by patrolling the Internet for pornography. Unlike most developed nations, pornography is illegal in South Korea, though it remains easy for its tech-savvy population to find. By Hyung-jin Kim.

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