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

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Health
1:40 pm
Thu September 20, 2012

State Senate committee begins examination of Blue Cross Blue Shield overhaul

Blue Cross Blue Shield would undergo major changes under proposed legislation.
Wikipedia

State Senate hearings began today on a proposed overhaul of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

The plan calls for Blue Cross to become a customer-owned not-for-profit corporation that’s regulated just like other insurance companies.

Right now, Blue Cross has to accept all applicants, regardless of their health. Starting in 2014, the Blues’ role as “insurer of last resort” will become unnecessary. Due to the federal healthcare law, insurance companies will no longer be able to reject people because of their health conditions.

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Politics & Government
6:15 pm
Tue September 18, 2012

Snyder makes second China trip

Gov. Rick Snyder is on his way to China on a mission to build stronger business ties between Michigan and Asia’s largest economy.
  
Gov. Snyder and members of his administration say he has two goals – to boost the more than $2 billion a year in goods and services exported to China from Michigan, and to convince Chinese companies to make Michigan their U.S. operational base.
 
“There’s an estimated one trillion dollars of investment that China is looking to make by the end of the decade," said Sarah Wurfel, the governor’s press secretary, "and Michigan is certainly ripe for that.”

The governor’s itinerary covers five cities over 10 days. It includes opening a Michigan business office in Shanghai. The visit coincides with the U.S. filing an unfair trade complaint against China with the World Trade Organization. It includes allegations of protectionist actions that hurt U.S. auto companies.

Politics & Government
4:39 pm
Mon September 17, 2012

Some county clerks in Michigan sue over citizenship question

Voting booth
suttonhoo.blogspot.com

Update 4:39 p.m.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson is being sued for ordering a citizenship question onto forms handed to voters at their local precincts. It asks people to check a box affirming their U.S. citizenship. But no one can legally be denied a ballot for refusing to check the box.
    
Jocelyn Benson directs the Michigan Center for Election Law, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. She said Secretary of State Johnson is acting outside the realm of her authority.

"And it's not going to prevent non-citizens from voting, but it is something that will create and has created some confusion in our elections process," said Benson.

The lawsuit was filed today in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

Johnson's office would not comment specifically on the lawsuit. But she has said the question is simply meant to remind people that only U.S. citizens can vote in elections.

3:06 p.m.

Some county clerks are suing the state over boxes on voter forms that ask people whether they are citizens.

The lawsuit will say that Secretary of State Ruth Johnson does not have the authority on her own to put the boxes on election forms. A voter cannot be denied a ballot for refusing to check the box.

Earlier this year, Governor Rick Snyder vetoed a bill that would have required voter forms to include a citizenship question.

(we'll update this post - check back)

It's Just Politics
2:30 pm
Fri September 14, 2012

A mixed reaction from Republicans over Snyder's Blue Cross Blue Shield overhaul

Governor Snyder announced his proposal for an overhaul of Blue Cross Blue Shield this week in Michigan
Photo courtesy of the Snyder Administration

This week on It's Just Politics it’s all about the Blues. Blue Cross Blue Shield, that is. BCBS is, by far, the state’s largest health insurance company. It’s also a state government creation; created by state law. It has its own law, separate from all other insurance companies because it is Michigan’s “insurer of last resort,” meaning that Blue Cross has to take everyone who applies. Its mission: to make sure everyone who wants or needs health insurance in Michigan can get it.

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Politics & Government
5:27 pm
Thu September 13, 2012

Too much emphasis on a four-year degree, says Michigan Governor

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
Governor Snyder's office State of Michigan

Governor Rick Snyder said Michigan and the rest of the country lost sight of the value of vocational training as young people were encouraged to get four-year college degrees. The governor spoke today at a business conference in Grand Rapids, the West Michigan Policy Forum.

He said too many students have been pushed toward getting four-year college degrees when vocational education or community college might have made more sense.

“And so we sorta messed up over the past 20 or 30 years, 40 years. We’ve lost the focus on how important those roles are,” said Snyder.

The governor said the result is thousands of jobs in skilled trades go unfilled while people are looking for work.

“How dumb was that? I mean, if you stop and think about it. So we did supply on one chart, demand on another chart, and when everyone knows we need to have one chart where we bring supply and demand together, and create talent, and connect it,” said Snyder.

Snyder says he intends to convene a summit of educators and employers early next year to get a better sense of where the demand for jobs is strongest – and use that information to help re-design Michigan’s education system.

The governor has also called for stronger integration of pre-school through post-high school education.

Health Insurance
5:30 pm
Tue September 11, 2012

Proposal would change Blue Cross in Michigan

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announces proposed changes to how the state's largest health insurance provider is regulated at a press conference, Tues. Sept. 11. 2012.
Governor Snyder's office State of Michigan

Update 5:30 p.m.

Governor Rick Snyder has proposed an overhaul of the rules covering Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Michigan. Blue Cross would have to pay taxes adding up to $100 million a year or more.

But the company could also make changes to its rates a lot more quickly and easily. That would help it compete for business.
    
Andy Hetzel is a vice president at Blue Cross. He says the new federal health care law is changing the insurance marketplace and Michigan needs to keep up.

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Environment & Science
5:53 pm
Mon September 10, 2012

Sikkema says green energy mandate would lead to higher energy costs

user vaxomatic flickr

The campaigns for and against Proposal 3 on the November ballot are arguing the economic merits of renewable fuels versus coal and gas.

Proposal 3 would require 25 percent of the state’s electricity be generated using wind, the sun, or bio-fuels by 2025.

Ken Sikkema conducted a study for the campaign against Proposal 3.

He compared the costs of renewable generation to the costs of using coal or natural gas.

He found renewable energy will be more expensive. Sikkema says businesses, in particular, need flexibility in planning for their energy needs.

"We don’t know what the cost of fuel’s going to be – for example, natural gas prices are on a downward spiral," says Sikkema. "That could be a factor in, if you need new generation, what do you use? Do you use wind? Do you use natural gas, or coal?"

The campaign for Proposal 3 says the ballot question would help stabilize energy costs, because the cost of wind and solar energy is not as volatile as fossil fuels.

The campaign also says the 25 percent target would help make renewable energy more affordable.

Politics & Government
9:32 am
Mon September 10, 2012

Prison employees in Michigan fight against privatization

Members of the Michigan Corrections Organization picket in front of the headquarters of the Department of Corrections.
Steve Carmody Michigan Radio

A public employees’ union says it will offer a counter-proposal if the state goes ahead with plans to privatize prison health care.

Governor Rick Snyder has ruled out privatizing entire prisons. But corrections officials think there may be savings to be had if the state turns to private companies to provide health care services.

Ray Holman is with UAW Local 6000, which represents many of the corrections employees who would be affected. He said the union will offer its own plan to save taxpayers money by reducing the costs of management and outsourcing.

“We believe we can beat any private company. We can do the job better, more effectively, and we want to be given the opportunity to prove it,” said Holman.

Holman said the union believes it can deliver the same services at a lower cost than other bidders. Those services include inmate health clinics, psychiatric services and counseling, psychological evaluations for parole candidates, and record-keeping.

It's Just Politics
3:21 pm
Fri September 7, 2012

Will Michigan's ballot proposals get out the vote in November?

Immortal Poet Flickr

It's official. There will be six questions on the state's November ballot: Five proposed amendments to the Michigan Constitution and one referendum on the state’s emergency manager law. And, we’re looking at some big battles here; we’ll certainly see a whole lot of money pouring into these efforts to change state law. In this week’s It’s Just Politics we take a look at how these ballot questions just might work as vote-drivers.

It’s a GOTV Kind of a Year

This year we have very few undecided voters – that group of anywhere from a third to even less than a quarter of the people that wait until the last minute to make up their minds. A lot of people don’t vote at all – in Michigan, about 40 percent of registered voters don’t actually make it to the polls. That’s referring, however, to the presidential race. In a presidential election year  that’s the biggest driver that gets people out to vote. There’s no doubt though that more people are still undecided about races and questions that are lower on the ballot. So, for many political strategists, the question becomes: what happens if you can somehow persuade some of those people to get out on Election Day?

Can Ballot Questions Get-Out-the-Vote?

Certainly, ballot questions are used to determine policy on issues. But they can also motivate people to get out and vote on issues they care about like same-sex marriage, affirmative action or abortion. This year, in Michigan, we have questions dealing with union rights and taxes. Democrats are pinning some of their electoral hopes on the Protect Our Jobs ballot question. The Protect Our Jobs proposal would guarantee bargaining rights, reverse a bunch of anti-union laws passed by the Legislature and Governor Snyder, and make sure there’s no way lawmakers could pass a right-to-work law in Michigan.

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Politics & Government
2:49 pm
Fri September 7, 2012

Michigan Gov. declares financial emergency in Allen Park, city on hook for belly-up movie studio

City of Allen Park

Governor Rick Snyder has declared a financial emergency in the city of Allen Park.

It could lead to a state-appointed manager running the city. A bad investment in a movie studio helped push the city to the edge of bankruptcy.

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Politics & Government
5:11 pm
Tue September 4, 2012

First day of classes in Michigan marked by new teacher retirement law

user kconnors morgueFile

The first day of classes was also the day Governor Rick Snyder made some big changes to how teachers and other public school employees will save for retirement.

The new law will require teachers to pay more for retirement benefits. New employees will no longer get retirement health care coverage, but a savings account to help them buy insurance.
    
Teachers unions are already in court to challenge the law, but Governor Snyder said he's not worried about the lawsuit. He said he expects to be sued when his administration makes big changes.

"So I sort of take that as part of the course of action, but we feel good about our litigation position in these matters. These are good things to do. We are doing them in good faith in partnership with the Legislature passing good statute," said Snyder.

The governor and many school administrators say the teacher pension system is over-burdened with debt, and the changes will ensure teachers' benefits will be there when they retire.

Education
6:46 am
Tue September 4, 2012

Retirement changes signed into law today for Michigan's teachers

Teachers in Michigan will see changes in their retirement packages.
Jennifer Guerra Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder will sign legislation into law Tuesday that will make some changes to how teachers and other school employees save for their retirement.
    
School employees will have to pay more for their benefits, and those hired after today will no longer get retirement health coverage.

Instead, they will get savings accounts to help them buy insurance once they are done working.
    
Governor Snyder said he understands that many school employees are upset.

“We had to make some reforms to make it fiscally viable and financially sound f or their future, too, in terms of their retirement benefits," said Snyder. "So, it’s a case of us all working together, and sometimes change is tough on people and I appreciate that. We’re just trying to make it something that lasts for the long term for the benefit of all."

Snyder said the new approach will begin to retire a long-term pension liability estimated in the billions of dollars.

He said it will also shore up the state’s credit rating, and ensure taxpayers won’t be saddled with the costs of a bailout years down the road.
    
Teachers unions say the plan breaks promises made to school employees, and went to court on Friday with a legal challenge.

It's Just Politics
3:31 pm
Fri August 31, 2012

Politics and the campaign spouse; when partners become an issue

Ann Romney at this year's Republican National Convention
Newshour Flickr

This week on It’s Just Politics we’re talking political spouses.

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta Friday, August 31st

There’s a whole lot of politics behind the role of spouses in campaigns. Just this week we saw Ann Romney speak about her husband, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, at the Republican National Convention. Over and over again we heard that her job was to “humanize” him. And, she got generally good reviews for the speech.

But this business of where spouses fit into campaigns and political strategies is a tricky game. Campaigns want to get a candidate’s significant other - presumably the person who knows the candidate like no one else - out there, in the public, making a case for their partner.

Double-edged Sword

But, spouses can also easily become involved in controversies. Opponents, for example, tried to use Michelle Bachmann’s husband and his counseling of gay people on how they can become straight as a campaign issue. And, just a few months ago, one of President Obama’s political advisors, Hilary Rosen, made a comment about how Ann Romney has never worked a, “day in her life.” That comment poked a serious hornet’s nest.  It would seem that there are just certain things you can say about a candidate that you cannot say about their spouse.

There was the infamous question from the 1988 presidential campaign when debate moderator Bernard Shaw asked Governor Michael Dukakis, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Many argued that it was Governor Dukakis’ passionless answer to this controversial question about his wife that cost him the election.  But, others, to do this day, argue that the question was totally out of line.

In 1992, Bill Clinton went on the attack during a primary against critics of Hillary Clinton telling California Governor Jerry Brown, “I don’t care what you say about me. But, you ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife.”

Johnson vs. Rendon

All of this, brings us to the race in the 103rd state House district in northern Michigan, where Democratic challenger Lon Johnson is trying to unseat first-term Republican incumbent Bruce Rendon. Representative Rendon sent out a fundraising letter that calls attention to the fact that Johnson’s wife is Julianna Smoot. Smoot is one of the people running President Obama’s reelection campaign, and a superstar of Democratic politics. The letter points out the connections the couple has to prominent national Democrats, including some wealthy donors, and devotes a couple of paragraphs to Smoot.

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Politics & Government
4:48 pm
Wed August 29, 2012

Four ballot controversies heading to Michigan Supreme Court tomorrow

user Jeffness Wikimedia Commons

The Michigan Supreme Court will hold a hearing tomorrow on whether four questions should appear on the statewide November ballot.

The court is expected to rule very quickly to meet election deadlines.

The proposals would

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Politics & Government
4:36 pm
Tue August 28, 2012

Civil rights law author: It’s time to debate adding gay rights

State Reps. Daisy Elliott (D-Detroit) and Mel Larsen (R-Oxford) jointly sponsored the landmark Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976. The law has been declared a Michigan Legal Milestone.
State Bar of Michigan

Michigan’s landmark civil rights law was celebrated today as a legal milestone in a ceremony at the state Capitol that re-united the two main sponsors of the legislation.

State Representative Daisy Elliott was a Democrat from Detroit. State Representative Mel Larsen was a Republican from Oakland County.

The 36-year-old Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act protects against discrimination based on race, religion, gender; national origin, or marital status.

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Politics & Government
6:11 pm
Mon August 27, 2012

Michigan election board deadlocks on bridge ballot proposal

The New International Trade Crossing would span the Detroit River. A Michigan election board deadlocked on a ballot proposal measure today that could put up a roadblock for the new trade crossing.
Elaine Ezekiel Michigan Radio

The Board of State Canvassers deadlocks on the ballot proposal that would require public votes to construct a new international bridge. The measure is backed by the owners of the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, who are trying to block a competing bridge. They could now go to court to get on the ballot.

Politics & Government
4:57 pm
Mon August 27, 2012

Backers of casino ballot question will have to go to court for approval

courtesy of www.instant-casino-bonus.com/gaming

The campaign to allow eight new non-tribal casinos in Michigan will have to go back to court to get a spot on the November ballot.

A state elections board deadlocked along party lines on whether to put the question on the ballot, with Democrats supporting the measure.

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Politics & Government
4:53 pm
Mon August 27, 2012

Michigan court orders collective bargaining rights proposal onto Nov. ballot

Mike Russell Wikimedia Commons

The Michigan Court of Appeals has ordered the proposal to protect collective bargaining rights in the state constitution onto the November ballot.

Now, the Michigan Supreme Court will be asked to intervene. The appeals court rejected a challenge to the proposal that claimed it is too sweeping and would affect an untold number of state laws.

Rich Studley is the president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and part of the coalition opposed to the proposal.

 "We are very disappointed with the ruling," he said. "We will keep fighting to protect the constitution and we will appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court."

Unions that support the measure say they always expected the case to go all the way to the state Supreme Court.

But they say voters should get to decide a question after more than 600 thousand voters signed petitions to put it on the ballot.

Nick Ciaramitaro is with the American Federation of State; County and Municipal Employees.

"Well, we’re happy the Court of Appeals made the decision that the Protect Our Jobs amendment belongs on the ballot and people have the right to vote in the constitutional amendment to protect collective bargaining," he said.

Ciaramitaro says an appeal by business groups to the state Supreme Court would be no surprise, but he says the courts need to make a final determination very soon.

Politics & Government
1:23 pm
Mon August 27, 2012

Michigan election board certifies August primary results

A state election board has officially certified the results of the August primaries. The Board of State Canvassers also authorized a handful of recounts in close state House races. The state Bureau of Elections anticipates five recounts, which should take place next week.

(They are in Genesee County, Ottawa County, the western UP, and two in Detroit.)

The board now moves on to authorizing or rejecting three petition drives looking to put questions on the November ballot.

The board will first hear a challenge to the campaign to allow eight new non-tribal casinos in Michigan. The other two proposals would require public votes on new international bridges, and to require two-thirds super-majorities before the Legislature could raise taxes.

It's Just Politics
2:36 pm
Fri August 24, 2012

Red state? Blue state? Taking a look at Michigan's (political) identity crisis

It's a "swing-state" edition of It's Just Politics this week. The big political question in the mitten-state currently seems to be "Is Michigan a true battleground - a swing state - in this year's presidential race?" You certainly would not be blamed for thinking so considering all of the campaign love that Michigan got this week.

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta - Friday, August 24th, 2012

Vice President Joe Biden was in Detroit on Wednesday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was in West Michigan yesterday campaigning on behalf of fellow Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and, just today, Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan visited Commerce Township.

Are we a (politically) fickle state?

This level of attention would seem to suggest that Michigan is a battleground state alongside  those perpetual swingers: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Colorado. There are certainly reasons to believe why this could be the case, even though Michigan has gone for the Democratic nominee in the last five presidential cycles. But, if you look back even further, the five cycles before that, Michigan voted for the Republican presidential candidate every time.

It would appear that we are a fickle state. Michigan may be blue, but it elects Republicans in statewide races all the time: Governor Rick Snyder, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson – just to name a few. And, even while Democrat Jennifer Granholn was governor, Attorney General Mike Cox and Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land were both Republicans.

Interestingly enough, Michigan’s record tilts more heavily toward sending Democrats to Washington D.C.. Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow are, of course, Democrats. And, in this election cycle, Republican Senate nominee Pete Hoekstra hopes to alter that trend, like Spence Abraham did –albeit for just one term – in 1994.

What do the polls say?

In this year's race, President Obama’s generally been given the edge in most polls in the state, even though Mitt Romney was born in Michigan and his father was governor here. But, just because he can claim "native-son" status, the Romney name does not always equal ballot magic. Romney's brother, Scott Romney, lost his reelection bid to the Michigan State University and his mother Lenore Romney failed in her U.S. Senate bid back in 1970. A former sister in law, Ronna, who ran with the Romney name also lost a Senate race.

A poll was released this week by Foster McCollum White and Associates for the Fox TV station in Detroit that gave Romney a four point lead over President Obama; and a slight lead for Pete Hoesktra over Senator Debbie Stabenow.

But, then, another poll was released this week that put President Obama and Senator Stabenow in the lead. So, it begs the question - which poll is right? The reality is there’s no objective measure for regular folks to use to judge the credibility of a poll. The only reality to compare it to is… other polls.

Is Michigan a swinging state?

So, aside from the polls - the question remains: are we a swing state or not? It would seem if the presidential campaigns didn’t think Michigan was relevant to them in November then they wouldn't be spending so much time here. But, one can argue that there are a whole lot of other reasons why candidates visit a place. Certainly, persuading voters is a big one. Keeping the base energized is another - especially in a year like this when it seems like most people have made up their minds who they want, or who they don’t want in the White House.

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