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

Rick Pluta / MPRN

The future of Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is in the hands of a federal appeals court.

Michigan was one of four states arguing to keep their bans in place today before the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

If the Potter Stewart Federal Courthouse had a theater marquee, it might have proclaimed a full-fledged “Legalpalooza,” with six cases from four states playing in one marathon session. About a half a dozen people even spent the night outside the courthouse in hopes of getting a seat to the show.

user The Geary's / Flickr

There’s a hearing Wednesday in Cincinnati on Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban. The case is before the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A panel of judges will also hear arguments on same-sex marriage bans in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Tuesday may be primary election day, but the truth is we’re already off to the races. The voting has begun. Absentee voting. Absentee ballots are the first ballots cast, but the last to be counted on Election Day. And more and more they can make the difference between winning and losing.

That’s because voting absentee is on the rise in Michigan -- nearly doubled over the past 10 years. More than one in four (27 percent, to be specific) of the ballots cast in 2012 were absentee. And that’s why the smart campaigns focus early on absentee voters. They keep track of who requests an absentee ballot, and then quickly steer campaign propaganda in that voter’s direction.

It is also why the Michigan Democratic Party -- with an eye toward November -- has been quietly carrying on an absentee voter experiment. Voters in Detroit and Lansing, can now apply for their absentee ballots online.

Jake Neher / MPRN

Until recently, businesses in Michigan had to pay taxes on almost all their equipment. Not surprisingly, they didn’t like this tax.

The state Legislature has done its part to phase out the personal property tax, but the rest is up to voters when they decide the fate of Proposal 1 on Tuesday’s ballot.

Businesses pay the personal property tax on everything from the factory machines that build cars and trucks to playground equipment and changing tables.

Meet Jerry Grubb, who owns the Wee Discover daycare center in Waterford.

“Sixteen years we’ve had those tables and changing tables, and 16 years I’ve been paying personal property tax,” he says. He says the same is true for computers, desks, and the high-powered dishwasher that keeps spoons, plates and baby bottles clean.

“I pay tax when I buy it and I pay tax on it every year,” he says.

Grubb and other Michigan business owners say the personal property tax is not only unfair, and cumbersome to comply with, but it also discourages investment: buying new equipment and hiring more employees.

Well, irritated business owners got their wish this year when the Legislature adopted a plan to phase out the personal property tax.

markschauer.com

Democratic candidate Mark Schauer says he would come up with a road funding solution where Governor Rick Snyder and the Republicans failed. Schauer did not give specifics, but said he would do it without raising fuel taxes. It was part of an economic platform he outlined today.

It also includes boosting the state’s renewable energy, repealing the right to work law, and restoring the tax break for pension income.

Schauer said his economic plan would create tens of thousands of new jobs.

“By rebuilding our infrastructure, raising our renewable energy standard, tough ‘buy Michigan’ standards, by cutting taxes to retirees and working families,” Schauer said, “I think tens of thousands is a conservative estimate.”

Schauer said he would also ban for-profit charter schools and rely less on outside contracts for state services.

Governor Snyder says his policies are at least partly responsible for 250,000 new private sector jobs since he took office.

MichigansChildren / YouTube

There was a lengthy meeting today between the Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction and some of the state’s largest charter school authorizers. Its purpose was to review the rules to ensure the independent academies are performing as promised.

The meeting went on for about three hours. It was closed to the public, and there were few details made public. Some of the state’s largest charter authorizers, including representatives of universities and community colleges, were invited.

 There are some big stakes in the primary elections less than two weeks away, and fierce fights over congressional and legislative nominations are getting a lot of attention.

Not that it’s likely to boost what is usually anemic turnout in the primaries, and that’s despite the reality that most seats are so firmly partisan that the primary is actually the decisive election that really determines who goes to Lansing or Washington.

Like other politicos, we’ve paid a lot of attention to the face-off between the Republican establishment and the GOP’s Tea Party wing. And while that fight is playing out in some state House and Senate races, and some big Congressional races, it’s also playing out locally. Very locally.

We’re talking about the humble precinct delegate.

James Marvin Phelps / Flickr

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and the state Department of Environmental Quality have sent a warning letter to Enbridge Energy. It says the company has to do a better job of securing an oil pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac.

“We just want to make sure that this pipeline’s going to be safe," said Dan Wyant, director of the DEQ. He says a leak in the pipeline would have implications throughout the Great Lakes.

“A lot of concern about this pipeline. Sixty years it’s been safe, but we’re in a position, Attorney General Schuette, I as the chief environmental officer of this state, to ensure we don’t have a problem on this pipeline,” he said.

Enbridge quickly responded it would add more anchors to its pipeline. Four years ago, a break in an Enbridge pipe dumped about a million of gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.

Photo courtesy of Michigan's Attorney General office / michigan.gov

A report by the Michigan Attorney General's office has found both human and technology failures played a part in the prison escape of a convicted murderer.

Michael Elliot slipped out of the Ionia Correctional Facility last February 2 by crawling under fences during a heavy snowfall. He wore white clothes to blend into the snow. He was captured about 24 hours later in Indiana.

Cue the James Bond theme as we take up electoral espionage. We’re talking campaign black ops. Political spying.

We learned this week that Republicans here in Michigan sent two young operatives equipped with a tiny video camera in a pair of glasses to infiltrate a Mark Schauer for Governor campaign event -- looking for whatever they might find. And what did they get? Found out.

Our ace operatives bungled the job. Dropped the disc with the video where it was found by Democrats. Who, then, made it public, including their brief conversation with Dem lieutenant governor candidate Lisa Brown.

Republicans didn’t deny the operatives were theirs.

Democrats and the Schauer campaign cried foul calling it sneaky, dirty tricks. They got some newspaper headlines. Effective messaging helped along by the fact that it fit did neatly into a narrative courtesy of some missteps -- or what seemed to be missteps -- by Governor Rick Snyder’s campaign.

James Fassinger Stillscenes

State environmental officials have rejected a plan to allow piles of petroleum coke to be stored at a location along the Detroit River.

Pet coke is an oil refinery by-product that’s used as an industrial fuel.

The state Department of Environmental Quality said the proposal by Detroit Bulk Storage did not address problems with blowing black dust.

Complaints about dust plumes were among the reasons why Detroit ordered the open piles of pet coke removed from a riverfront location in the city.

Member of the public with a “No Fracking” sticker on her clothes as she testifies before a panel of environmental regulators.
Rick Pluta

State environmental regulators will put the finishing touches on new rules regarding “fracking” now that public hearings have wrapped up. They expect to have the new rules adopted by the end of the year, but the state’s rules may not be the final word on the controversial drilling process

“Fracking” is a drilling method that pushes water and chemicals into wells to force out oil and gas deposits.

Daniel Parks / Flickr

An association of non-union construction companies has asked the state Supreme Court to strike down local prevailing wage laws. The Associated Builders and Contractors says a state law preempts the ordinances.

Nearly two dozen Michigan communities have their own prevailing wage ordinances. They’re supposed to ensure that workers on city-financed projects are paid something close to union wages.

This week, pretty much unnoticed, the deadline came and went for opponents to file challenges to petitions filed by the Citizens for Professional Wildlife Management campaign to initiate a law. This is part of the ongoing political battle over wolf hunting in the Upper Peninsula.

The CPWM petition drive would create a new version of the law to allow wolf hunting, and it would take future decisions on designating game animals and put it with the state Natural Resources Commission instead of the Legislature.

Now, not everyone may recognize that petition campaign. But, if you signed a petition to oppose Asian carp in the Great Lakes, you signed a petition to allow wolf hunting in the UP. If you signed a petition to allow active duty military personnel to get free hunting and fishing licenses, you signed a petition to allow wolf hunting.

The group "Keep Michigan Wolves Protected" gathers signatures.
Keep Michigan Wolves Protected / Facebook

A coalition of activist groups is trying to make an issue of the Legislature passing laws to bypass petition drives and ballot measures.

The groups say Republicans at the state Capitol have circumvented voters on questions including the emergency manager law, the minimum wage, and wolf hunting. In each of those cases, the Legislature passed laws that ran contrary to the results of an election or a petition drive.

Danielle Atkinson is with the campaign to increase the state minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. She says the Legislature acted legally, but violated the spirit of the Michigan Constitution’s power to use the ballot to initiate or challenge laws.

“This is not what the drafters of the state constitution intended when they gave people the right to petition their government.”

user FatMandy / flickr

The Michigan Supreme Court says felons sentenced as juveniles to life without parole won’t get new sentences.

That’s despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says it’s cruel and unusual punishment.

The question was whether the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller vs. Alabama applies retroactively in Michigan to more than 300 inmates sentenced as juveniles to life without parole, or if it only applies to future cases.

A four-to-three majority on the state Supreme Court says it would present too many financial and logistical barriers to go back and find lost witnesses and evidence for new sentencing hearings.

The Miller decision says mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional because they don’t take into account each child’s circumstances.

States have split on how to handle the Miller decision, which suggests the issue could yet be headed back one day to the U.S. Supreme Court.

michigan.gov

The Michigan Court of Appeals says state regulators were correct to deny a drilling permit to developers who want to put oil wells on private land surrounded by a state forest.

The developers said the state should either grant the permit, or compensate them for their lost investment. They want to put 11 wells on private property surrounded by the Pigeon River Country State Forest in northern lower Michigan. The state Department of Environmental Quality said the wells were either in designated no-drill zones, or were too close to water.

“The takeaway from this decision is that you can’t drill an oil well just any old place in the state of Michigan,” said DEQ spokesman Brad Wurful. “There are some areas that are off limits.”

And the decision says since that was clear up front, the developers don’t get a payback from the state.

“What the court said was, everybody knew this beforehand going into this and it was clear,” Wurful said. “Nobody got surprised here. They simply wanted to do something that was not allowed and the court upheld that. We’re pretty pleased with the decision, obviously.”

The developers can file a new permit request with plans to use different technology, like directional drilling. They can also take their case to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Wikimedia Commons

Governor Rick Snyder says a deal with a private contractor to provide food for state prisons could be terminated if there are future problems with the company. Aramark Food Services was awarded the $145 million, three-year contract last December. But the arrangement has been beset by problems since then.

Aramark has been fined by the state for unapproved menu changes and running out of food. Also, 70 Aramark employees are banned from state prisons for inappropriate relationships with prisoners.

Most recently, maggots were found in the meal area at a prison in Jackson.

U.S. Supreme Court

A U.S. Supreme Court decision that limits how unions can organize many workers who are paid with public money also upholds a two-year-old Michigan law. And it could have an effect on the ongoing litigation over home health care workers.

Unions saw an opportunity to increase their ranks by organizing home health care assistants – independent contractors, often family members, who provide home care for elderly people, patients in recovery, and children. 

Republicans in the Legislature outlawed mandatory union membership for publicly paid home health assistants in 2012. That same year, voters also rejected a ballot proposal to allow it.

“And this really settles the issue in Michigan and nationally,” said Patrick Wright. He’s an attorney with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which filed a lawsuit against the organizing effort. “The United States Supreme Court has looked at something that we said was illegal and said, yes, this is illegal across the entire country.”

It’s been almost six months since Mike Duggan took over as mayor of Detroit. He took over a city however, run by someone else: state-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

But, that doesn’t mean Duggan has been denied all the rites of passage of the job including the schlep to Lansing to ask the state Legislature for something. Every mayor has to do it. And Duggan had to go to Lansing with a really big ‘ask.’ We’re talking about the $195 million dollar rescue package for his city (that’s right, ‘rescue,’ ‘settlement.’ Just don’t call it a ‘bailout.’)

Getting the Republican-led state House and Senate to go along with sending almost $200 million dollars to a Democratically-controlled city was not an easy task.

Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office

Governor Rick Snyder has signed a law that requires police and hospitals to handle rape evidence kits in a timely fashion. It’s a response to the discovery in 2009 of 11,000 abandoned evidence kits in a Detroit police warehouse.

Governor Snyder says the Michigan State Police is on track to clear the backlog by next May. But the goal of the new law is to ensure future backlogs don’t happen.

James Marvin Phelps / Flickr

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation has created a fund to help leverage more money for public beautification projects. It’s a partnership with a crowdsourcing website to help local governments raise funds for parks, sculptures, tree-planting and similar projects.

Mike Finney is the director of the MEDC. He says it’s a new way to attract private investments in public projects.

“It’s a great way to stretch our dollars much further than they would otherwise if this had to be a public sector project in and of itself,” Finney said.

The state will match up to $100,000 for approved projects raised through the website, crowdfundingmi.com. Finney says this is the first time that he’s heard of the public sector using crowdfunding to raise money for local beautification projects.  

gophouse.com

Governor Rick Snyder says he’s for more transparency in school spending, but he’s not ready to apply those standards to private companies that run charter schools.

A Detroit Free Press series on charter schools found, among other things, that private management companies that run charters are not required to explain how they spend state payments. Governor Snyder says he could support stricter disclosure requirements for all schools – not just charters – but not necessarily the private companies that run charter academies.

Detroit skyline.
user JSFauxtaugraphy / Flickr

Gov. Rick Snyder has signed legislation that authorizes the state’s $195 million contribution to the Detroit bankruptcy settlement. The governor says the settlement is a good deal for taxpayers because it sets the stage for the city’s comeback.

Gov. Snyder called Detroit’s bankruptcy the “darkest chapter” in the city’s history. But he says the taxpayer donation shows the entire state is behind the Detroit recovery effort.

Joe Gratz / Flickr

The Michigan Supreme Court says judges can’t order people convicted of a crime to pay the costs to the legal system – unless it’s been specifically allowed by the Legislature.
   
It’s been routine in Michigan for judges to order defendants to pay prosecution and court costs as a part of sentencing.

In this case, Frederick Cunningham was convicted in Allegan County of a prescription drug offense. The judge ordered Cunningham to pay $1,000 in unspecified “court costs.” But Michigan’s prescription drug law doesn’t mention court costs.

user cedarbenddrive / Flickr

Democrats in the state Legislature have rolled out a bill to repeal the state’s petition-initiated law that requires people who want abortion coverage to buy a separate insurance policy. They acknowledge they don’t have the votes to repeal the law that was approved just last year by the Legislature. They say they’re hoping to open a public conversation on the law and its effects.

"Unfortunately, this is an issue that I would admit there are too much politics going on." That was Gov. Rick Snyder last night, after it became clear that a major roads funding package was not going to get passed in the state Senate.

"...If we were sitting at the kitchen table as a big family,” he continued, “and you looked at this issue, we would have solved this problem.”

Sure. Or our big family would fight about who wrecked the roads in the first place and that it was your fault – you and your big truck – which is why we can’t have nice roads and don’t you know I have a primary and, by the way, I haven’t forgotten who wrecked the roads that you won’t fix because you should.

But, we digress.

There were a lot of reasons why this road-funding deal failed to come together, despite some recent instances of actual bipartisanship, like increasing the state’s minimum wage and the Detroit rescue package. But those were exceptions in this era of Republican hegemony in Lansing.

Marijuana plant.
USFWS

The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear two more medical marijuana cases. Two medical marijuana cardholders want the state’s highest court to rule that a voter-approved law shields them from criminal charges.

In both cases, the defendants say the fact that they have medical marijuana cards should protect them from prosecution even if they did not abide by the letter of the law.

In one case, a cardholder who was also allowed to provide marijuana to two patients was charged after he sold pot to an undercover police officer posing as a patient. In the other case, the cardholder had more marijuana than he needed for his patients, and the plants were not kept in a separate locked location.

They both say the medical marijuana law offers sweeping protections to state-issued cardholders from criminal charges. Michigan’s medical marijuana statute was approved by an overwhelming majority of the state’s voters in 2008. More than 130 thousand Michigan residents have registered for cards. 

Capitol Building, Lansing, MI
Matthileo / Flickr

Negotiations between Republicans and Democrats at the state Capitol over road funding may have resurrected the controversy over Michigan’s right-to-work law.

There’s a lot of deal-making happening in Lansing as the Legislature enters the final days before its summer recess. The two biggest issues are finishing the state budget, and coming up with more than $1.2 billion new dollars a year for roads – Governor Rick Snyder’s top priority before lawmakers leave Lansing.

Brian Turner / Flickr

A new report by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency is calling for an end to the state’s policy of automatically charging 17-year-olds as adults, and sending them to prison – even for non-violent offenses.

The Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency says teens sent to prison are more likely to re-offend after they’re released. The vast majority of teens sent to prison are 17 and the average stay is five years.

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