Rick Pluta

Reporter / Producer - Michigan Public Radio Network

Rick Pluta has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.

Rick was one of the first Michigan political reporters to write about “pay-to-play” fundraising, and the controversies surrounding recognition of same-sex relationships. He broke the news that Gov. John Engler was planning a huge juvenile justice overhaul that included adult-time-for-adult-crime sentencing, and has continued to report since then on the effects of that policy decision.

He co-hosts the weekly segment “It’s Just Politics” on Michigan Radio with Zoe Clark.

Rick is fascinated by the game of politics, and the grand plans and human foibles that go into policy-making. You will never find him ice-fishing.

Follow him on Twitter at @rickpluta

Cedar Bend Drive / Flickr

The federal government is expected to rule soon that Michigan’s system for funding Medicaid is illegal. That would put more than a billion dollars in federal funds and the state’s balanced budget at risk unless the Legislature adopts another plan to come up with that money.

Governor Rick Snyder has been pressuring the Legislature to adopt a one percent tax on all health insurance claims. That would put Michigan in compliance with federal rules. Otherwise, Michigan could lose 10 percent of its funding for the entire Medicaid program.

The claims tax would generate $400 million, and qualify the state for twice that much in federal funds.

The governor says the state’s balanced budget for the coming fiscal year is at stake, as well his promise not to cut Medicaid services for the poor as Michigan is just beginning to emerge from a long recession.

“I think it’s a good thing to do to ensure we balance our budget and we have good Medicaid in our state.”

But support among lawmakers for a new tax has been elusive. The measure failed when state Senate leaders put it up for a test vote.

The state Senate has approved a measure that would repeal Michigan’s helmet requirement for motorcycle riders who agree to carry extra insurance coverage. But, the Senate bill was a compromise that pleased almost no one.

The Senate bill would require riders who doff their helmets to carry an extra $100 thousand in personal injury coverage. That was not enough to win the support of insurance companies and highway safety advocates. Opponents of the helmet law - such as Jim Rhodes - say the coverage would too expensive for most people and is almost the same as not repealing the requirement at all.

“It pretty much stops it in its tracks.”

Governor Snyder sent word that he’s not interested in a helmet law repeal that does not require helmetless riders to carry more coverage, but he’s willing to negotiate over the Legislature’s summer break.

But he appears to agree with estimates that suggest without the additional coverage for helmetless riders, the public could be saddled with more than $100 million in medical costs.

Eggrole / Flickr

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has issued a formal opinion that says medical marijuana growers cannot have more than 12 plants. The opinion could put out of business growing cooperatives that raise pot for multiple patients. The opinion carries the force of law unless overturned by a court. State lawmakers have also rolled out bills that would put more regulations around the voter-approved law to allow marijuana for patients with terminal or chronic conditions.

Sabine01 / Flickr

The Michigan Constitution gives people the right to challenge laws they don’t like by calling a voter referendum. The only laws immune to a referendum are measures that appropriate money.

The framers of the constitution did not want to put the state’s ability to pay its bills at risk.  

But some critics complain the Legislature is misusing that power to make some controversial measures referendum-proof.

Governor Rick Snyder

Governor Snyder has stayed pretty quiet on the subject of federal health care reforms. He is the nation’s only Republican governor who has not specifically called for repealing the law.

But he said this week that the new rules don’t pay enough attention to wellness and prevention. The governor told a group of small business owners that he will propose a health care reform plan for Michigan later this year that will focus on containing costs by encouraging people to get healthier.

stevendepolo / flickr

A bill that would rewrite the rules for dividing property and assets when a married couple splits up will move ahead slowly, if at all. That’s the promise from the chair of a state House committee after judges and family lawyers crowded into a hearing room to oppose the measure. It would make it easier for one person in a couple to hang onto a business or some other asset that’s grown in value during the course of a marriage. 

Clinton County Probate Judge Lisa Sullivan testified in opposition to the bill:

University of Michigan

 Some legislators are squaring off with Governor Rick Snyder and public universities over embryonic stem cell research. The governor says his administration won’t enforce a budget clause that says researchers must produce detailed reports on their work, and how they go about it. The universities say the rules outlined in the budgets are meant to stifle and discourage embryonic stem research. 

The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear several cases that could clarify the rules surrounding Michigan’s voter-approved medical marijuana law.

A man with a medical cannabis card who grew marijuana in a backyard structure wants a court ruling that says he was within his legal rights. He was cited by police for not having the grow-area properly locked and enclosed. In another case, a man claims he was improperly charged with possession because he is a medical marijuana user – even though at the time of his arrest he had not yet obtained a medical marijuana card.

The court cases are working their way through the legal system as communities are drafting and re-drafting ordinances on the operation of medical marijuana clinics, and the Legislature is debating additional laws to stake out the rules for medical marijuana.

Gov. Rick Snyder

 A group opposed to the state’s new emergency manager law has filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse it.  The lawsuit says the emergency manager law undermines voters’ rights to choose their elected officials. That’s because the law allows state-appointed emergency managers sweeping powers - including the ability to remove elected officials who don’t cooperate.

 Kym Spring is one of the 28 plaintiffs challenging the law:

Snyder signs budget

Jun 22, 2011
Photo courtesy of the Snyder administration

Governor Rick Snyder has signed a budget for the coming fiscal year. He says the spending plan includes some tough-but-necessary choices that were necessary to retire a deficit and to set Michigan on a path to fiscal responsibility.

The partisan battle over the state’s new maps of congressional and legislative districts kicks off Tuesday at the state Capitol.

Republicans are likely to get their plans adopted. They control the House, the Senate and the governor’s office. A legal challenge would probably be decided by the GOP controlled state Supreme Court.

Democrats charge Republicans manipulated the lines to put two Democratic incumbents together in one district – and to shore up the GOP base for some vulnerable Republicans.

Michigan Supreme Court

The state Supreme Court has agreed to Governor Rick Snyder’s request to make an early ruling on whether the new income tax on pensions violates the Michigan Constitution.

Governor Snyder made the request to avoid what potentially could be years of litigation.

The governor is trying to preempt an expected lawsuit from state employee unions. They say the tax on pensions will illegally reduce their agreed-to compensation under collective bargaining agreements.

The Michigan Constitution says the state may not “diminish” nor “impair” the financial benefits of pension plans.

The governor wants the question settled before the pension tax takes effect next year. The law extends the state income tax for the first time to pensions of people born after 1945.

The Supreme Court ordered oral arguments to be held in the case in September. The court has a Republican majority.

Governor Rick Snyder is the only Republican governor in the country to decline to sign a letter outlining their goals for healthcare.

The letter included a call to reverse the new federal health care reforms.

The letter was sent by the Republican Governors Association and signed by every member of the group except for Governor Snyder. The letter calls on Congress to give states more control over the Medicaid program, which provides health coverage for low-income families. But it also says reversing federal health care reforms is the top priority of Republican governors.

Governor Snyder has been circumspect on where he stands on the health care reforms.

“My role is not to be a large advocate on the national scale. My role is to be governor of Michigan," said Snyder. "We’re focused on Michigan issues.”

Governor Snyder says the state will move ahead with plans to enact the federal reforms unless they are struck down by a court.

The governor sent his own letter to congressional leaders, pointing out that Michigan has not cut Medicaid services to low-income families despite a budget crisis.

Patricia Drury / Flickr

A state Senate committee opened hearings yesterday on legislation that would start the process of building a new bridge connecting Detroit to Canada.

The new bridge would compete with the existing Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor-Ontario.

Governor Rick Snyder would like the Legislature to approve the initial stages of the bridge project by the end of the month.

Representatives of Governor Snyder’s administration and the Canadian government were on hand to insist the new bridge is an economic necessity that would not cost Michigan taxpayers any money.

Canada has committed to pay all the construction costs with repayment coming from tolls.

Roy Norton, Canada’s consul general to Michigan, says both Michigan and Canada would benefit from expanded border access.

“There are jobs in almost every county of Michigan that depend on companies being able to move things back and forth across the frontier with Canada,” said Norton.

The new bridge would compete with the existing Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor. The owners of the Ambassador Bridge are trying to stop the project.

Matthew Moroun’s family owns the Ambassador Bridge. Moroun will testify today before the state Senate Economic Development Committee.

“We intend to show the actual statistics," said Moroun. "You know, we’ve been in the bridge business for 30-some years, and you learn a lot about the bridge business from being in the bridge business, I can tell you.”

Moroun says the state and Canada cannot credibly guarantee taxpayers’ money is not at stake in going ahead with a new bridge.

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley is the governor’s lead negotiator to win legislative support of the bridge. He says a new border crossing in southeastern Michigan is critical to the economic future of the entire state.

“Our biggest customer is Canada," said Calley. "We sell more to Canada than anybody else. They buy more of our goods than anybody else, and so we need more access, better access to that market if Michigan is to be successful.”

Calley and the Snyder administration face skeptics in the Legislature.

Opponents of a new bridge say traffic studies show there’s no need for a new bridge. They also say the state should not be backing a public bridge to compete with a private business.

Many Democratic and Republican lawmakers say they remain skeptical the deal would be good for Michigan taxpayers or that a new bridge is necessary, and they say it will take more before they’ll cast a vote in favor of it.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder says a visit to Wall Street was an important first step toward winning a credit upgrade for Michigan, but there is still more work to be done.

The governor says he talked about the start of Michigan’s economic comeback in meetings with bond-rating agencies.

"I could give them cases of auto plants in Michigan adding second and third shifts that we’ve seen recently, plus the fact all the auto companies have in fact gone and have been hiring lots of engineers lately so it’s a great story," said Snyder.

The governor says he invited the firms to send people to Michigan and he plans more discussions in the future.

The state will likely have to show a longer trend of stable tax collections and more money in its emergency savings before it can return to its pre-2003 Triple-A credit rating.

That would reduce interest payments and the cost of building roads, schools, and hospitals.

Governor Rick Snyder and members of his budget team visited New York to meet with the agencies that set the state’s credit rating.

The state’s rating suffered due to the effects of the decade-long recession.

It's bond ratings are not that bad, but they could be better.

Governor Snyder traveled to Wall Street with state Treasurer Andy Dillon and Budget Director John Nixon. They made the case that Michigan deserves an upgrade because it’s overhauled its business tax and wrapped up its budget months ahead of schedule without resorting to accounting gimmicks and one-time fixes.

Sara Wurfel, the governor’s press secretary, said “one change in a state’s bond rating can actually mean millions of dollars in lower payments.”

The governor’s itinerary included meetings with Moody's, Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's. The meetings only opened the discussions with Wall Street, and Wurfel says there will be further negotiations as the governor tries to reduce the cost to taxpayers when Michigan borrows money.

A new report says anonymous donors have a growing influence in Michigan election campaigns.

The study by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network says independent groups that don’t have to reveal their donors spent $23 million on political ads last year.

The report shows both Governor Rick Snyder and his Democratic opponent, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, were among the candidates for statewide office who were aided by ads paid for by unknown donors to independent political committees.

The use of independent and untraceable ads is especially prevalent in state Supreme Court races, says Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Robinson says the donors may be invisible to the public, but they still want something for the money they are spending to support or oppose politicians:

"Whether it's a workplace regulation, an environmental deregulation, a budget earmark, a public works project, a tax not levied, whatever it is, and I don’t think we’re seeing half the story on the money that’s moving public policy."

Robinson says, in some cases, ads paid for by anonymous donors made up half the spending in a race, and that $70 million was spent on untraceable and independent election ads over the past decade.

"In all of these campaigns, voters have an interest in knowing who the real supporters of the candidates are," said Robinson. "It’s a mechanism for controlling quid pro quo corruption in politics."

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network is calling for a law to require independent groups that buy campaign or issue advocacy ads to identify their donors.

A member of the family that owns the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit has acknowledged giving money to a group that’s working to stop the construction of a competing bridge – including plastering a neighborhood with fake eviction notices.

But Matthew Moroun says his family had nothing to do with the flyers.

Flickr user audreyjm529 / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

A metro-Detroit lawmaker has proposed a statewide ban on pit bulls.

The measure sponsored by Representative Timothy Bledsoe would make it illegal to own a pit bull in Michigan by 2021. He says he was approached about the measure by a woman from his district whose niece was mauled by a pit bull. 

Mike Babcock / Flickr

A few hundred opponents of Michigan’s mandatory motorcycle helmet law rallied today at the state Capitol.

They support a state Senate bill that would allow riders 21 years and older to choose to ride without a helmet. They would have to have at least two years of riding experience, or have passed a motorcycle safety course.

Governor Rick Snyder says he's open to granting the wish of riders who want the helmet requirement repealed, but he also says he needs some assurances that the public won’t be saddled with big medical bills when helmetless riders are injured.

"And I’ve had an open discussion with them and I said one of the concerns that I want to look at is the cost to all of our citizens in the state, and understanding those and making sure we are doing it in a fair way," Snyder said.

Helmet law foes believe they have the votes in the Legislature to get a helmet law repeal passed.

Laura Brand-Bauer says she typically wears a helmet, but wants the option to ride without it.

"You know, I've ridden without a helmet on occasion in Ohio and Indiana and wouldn’t mind being able to do that when I felt like it," said Brand-Bauer. "I do believe that people should have a choice."

Insurance companies and traffic safety advocates say the helmet law is working and should remain as it is. Opponents of the law say training and experience are more important than wearing a helmet to avoid deaths and injuries.

user spicybear / Flickr

Michigan’s motorcycle helmet law is once again in the sights of advocates who say riders should be allowed to operate a bike without head protection.

Legislation approved today by the state Senate Transportation Committee would allow licensed operators to forgo a helmet if they are 21 years old and have had a motorcycle endorsement for two years; or they have passed a motorcycle safety course.

An employee in Governor Rick Snyder's office was treated and quarantined after a letter delivered to the office caused a burning sensation in his fingers. The letter had what was described as a "grainy substance" that caused the injury. The governor's office says the governor called the employee to make sure he is O-K. The Michigan State Police are investigating the incident.  


State Attorney General Bill Schuette says he will go to court to make sure any book royalties earned by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick go first toward paying his restitution debt to the state.

A Kilpatrick autobiography is expected to be released next month. Kilpatrick is in prison for failing to make restitution payments while enjoying an affluent lifestyle in Texas.

"When someone’s in the slammer, someone’s violated the law, and you owe citizens of the state of Michigan money, restitution, before you rake in royalties on a book deal, we need to make sure you even it up with the taxpayers."

Schuette says he will work with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy on a motion to tap any book royalties for restitution. Kilpatrick owes the city of Detroit more than $816,000.

A Kilpatrick spokesman did not return a phone call.


Legislation to create an authority to build a new international bridge in Detroit has been introduced in the state Senate.

Governor Rick Snyder is using a conference on Mackinac Island to sell the idea to lawmakers and business people.

He still has to win over skeptical Republicans in the Legislature who are not convinced there is no risk to taxpayers in the deal.

The bridge fight could pose his biggest intra-party squabble yet. It's a debate that’s expected to last through much if June.

The governor says the bridge is necessary to support Michigan’s growing export trade, saying the entire state benefits from the growth in exports:

"We had a big bounce back from 2009," Snyder said. "The jump this year has been very large and Canada is our biggest trading partner. We did over $44 billion in exports last year…and 49% of that was with Canada."

The governor says that includes agriculture products and manufactured goods from every corner of Michigan. Supporters of the bridge say there will be even more benefits if Canada and Mexico approve a free trade deal.

The owners of the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit are putting up a fierce fight including a statewide ad campaign to stop the bridge project.

They say there won’t be enough traffic to justify a second bridge.

The governor calls those claims "false."

Photo courtesy of the Snyder Administration

Two-thirds of Michigan businesses are in line for a tax rollback next year. The rest will pay a six percent tax on profits. Pensions in Michigan will be taxed for the first time. An income tax reduction will be delayed to save money to help balance a budget that reduces spending on schools, local governments, and higher education.

These are all details of a sweeping tax overhaul signed into law yesterday by Governor Rick Snyder.

Snyder made cutting and simplifying the taxes paid by businesses his marquee campaign promise, and he got to fulfill that promise just a few days short of five months in office.

“It will create jobs. I’m confident of that.”

The governor says Michigan’s business tax plan will be simpler, and fairer. Only a third of Michigan businesses – those with lots of shareholders and registered as “C” corporations under the tax code – will pay the six percent tax on profits after expenses.

The governor acknowledged some parts of the plan are controversial – especially taxing pensions. Next year, someone living on a $50,000 pension can expect to pay about $1,400 in state income tax.

Snyder says extending the income tax to people born after 1946 with pension income exceeding $40,000 means that share of the burden won’t be shifted to younger people.

“That’s going to help on that issue of keeping our young people right here in Michigan.”

And the governor – a former tech company CEO and venture capitalist -- says the state’s new business tax system should be solid enough to endure for another 50 years.

The state House has approved a measure that would eliminate the age restriction on children who hunt with an adult.

Currently, the state does not allow children under the age of 10 to hunt.

Republican state Representative Peter Petallia sponsored the bill. The measure would allow a child of any age to hunt, fish, or trap with an adult 21 years or older who has a license and has taken a hunter safety course.

"We spend too much time today behind TVs and computer screens and not enough time monitoring what youth are doing," said Petallia. "This gives us some an opportunity to get them out, spend some time with them and introduce them to our sport."

A handful of lawmakers voted against the bill. Some said children under 10 should not handle firearms. A few said hunting seasons with youth spook deer and other game before the regular season begins.

The bill now goes to the state Senate.

user aunt owwee / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder and legislative Republicans are expected to wrap up work this week on the budget. If they succeed, they will meet the governor’s target of finishing the budget four months ahead of the constitutional deadline.

Democrats, who are in the minority in the House and the Senate, have some objections, but expect to lose this week’s budget battle.

That won’t stop them from calling for using a revenue windfall to make sure schools don’t lose any money in the new budget.

The new budget deal struck this week between Governor Rick Snyder and Republican legislative leaders cuts the amount of money for redeveloping abandoned factories and preserving historic buildings.

The governor says the state won’t need to rely so much on targeted incentives in the future.

The new budget will zero out brownfield and historic preservation tax credits, and replace them with a new fund to offer economic development grants.

$50 million will be set aside for brownfields and historic preservation.

That’s $15 to $20 million dollars less than the state targets now.

But Governor Snyder says the state can do a better job of choosing projects "and hopefully make those dollars go farther than they are today."

Mark Morante, with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, says the state will target only projects most likely to be completed.

In the past, many tax credits that were awarded went unclaimed. He also says the state won’t need to rely on incentives as much because tax changes will bring down the cost of doing business.

"With this six percent corporate income tax and roughly an 80 percent cut in corporate taxes in general, our job will be a little easier on that side of the table, so we will probably need less incentives," said Morante. 

Those tax reforms have been criticized as a tax shift onto individuals. But the governor and his Republican allies in the Legislature say that will be worth it if it creates new jobs.

The Michigan Department of Management, Budget and Technology says the computer outage affecting Secretary of State branch offices will not be fixed before the close of business today.

A spokesman says technicians will work through the night, if necessary, to fix the problems.

The shutdown of a mainframe computer also prevents State Police troopers from conducting license and vehicle checks, but not from issuing tickets.

Michigan’s new monthly jobless rate of 10-point-two percent signals the state continues to recover slowly from the recession. The new unemployment figure is a drop of one-tenth of a percentage point from March to April, and is a full three percentage points below where it was at this time last year.

There’s plenty of evidence that Michigan is in the early stages of a comeback, but job growth remains anemic. The state added just three thousand jobs from March to April.

One early, promising sign, though: so far this year people are no longer giving up their job searches and leaving the workforce. But, Bruce Weaver of the state Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives says disgruntled ex-jobseekers aren’t resuming their search for work, either. When that happens, he says, that could signal growing faith that a recovery is underway.

“One of the first impacts you will often see is an increase in individuals entering the workforce, seeking jobs. There’s not any evidence in these numbers that’s happening yet in Michigan.”

And Michigan’s rate of under-employment, while edging downward, remains high. The combined rate of unemployment and under-employment is 20 percent.