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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It's Just Politics
4:11 pm
Fri July 20, 2012

Damning report, text messages lead to political embarrassment for GOP lawmakers

Republican Representative Roy Schmidt and Republican Speaker of the House Jase Bolger found themselves in hot water this week after text messages between the two were revealed.

State Representative Roy Schmidt was back in the headlines this week; tagged in a prosecutor’s report as a liar and a cheat – but not a lawbreaker – for his last-minute party switch from Democrat to Republican and scheme to pay a patsy to be the fake Democrat on the ballot against him. It was just two short months ago that Schmidt was welcomed to the House Republican caucus with cheers and applause when he announced his party-switch. State House Speaker Jase Bolger was credited with engineering the political coup of the year. In fact, it was the first party switch by a sitting Michigan lawmaker in two decades. But, as it turns out, it wasn’t such a well-planned operation.

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta, July 20, 2012

A Damning Report

This week, Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth issued an eight-page report outlining the plot between Bolger and Schmidt. The report shows not only a plot for Schmidt to switch parties so late in the game that Democrats would not have time to put one of their own on the ballot, but also to pay one Matt Mojzak, a 22-year-old Schmidt-family friend, to be his fake Democratic opponent. Mojzak’s fee was to be $450. It was then upped to a thousand dollars as he started to get cold feet. Checks were cut from Schmidt’s campaign fund, but never handed over as Mojzak said he wanted nothing more to do with Schmidt or the scheme.

The Republican prosecutor said Schmidt and Bolger tried to undermine the integrity of the election and that it was shameful but, not illegal. Apparently, paying someone to be on a ballot – to basically fix a political race – is not a crime in Michigan.

Embarrassing Texts (What Else is New?)

The scathing report was made possible because Forsyth was able to trace back the scheme to text messages that were sent between Bolger and Schmidt. Yes, folks, another text-message scandal. Political-observers from around the state have been making light of the texts between Bolger and Schmidt. Though they're certainly not as steamy as the infamous Kwame Kilpatrick-texts, they do seem to show a budding "bromance" between Schmidt and Bolger. You can hear a couple of the texts (yes, for your enjoyment, we did a reenactment) at the audio link above.

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Health
3:28 pm
Thu July 19, 2012

Snyder says he’s still willing to work with Legislature on health care law

Gov. Rick Snyder
Rick Snyder for Michigan Facebook.com

Gov. Rick Snyder says he’ll continue to push the Legislature to create a place online to comparison shop for health insurance. The health care exchanges are an element of what’s required under the federal healthcare law that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
    
Republican leaders in the state House say they’re in no hurry and plan to hold hearings before making their next move. The governor says time is growing short to comply with the law, and the state risks losing its share of federal funds to enact its exchange.

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Politics & Government
4:03 pm
Wed July 18, 2012

Protesters abound at Legislature’s only session day in July

Michigan State Capitol Building
Nikopoley Wikimedia Commons

Several rallies at the state Capitol were timed to coincide with the Legislature’s only session day this month.

The largest was a group of about 150 abortion rights advocates protesting a package of bills before the state Senate.

The bills call for strict regulations on abortion providers.

One of the speakers was Renee Chelian. She works for a group of family planning clinics in metro Detroit. Chelian says protests have slowed down the bills after they cleared the state House last month.

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Politics & Government
3:06 pm
Wed July 18, 2012

Democrats call for House inquiry into actions by Schmidt, Bolger

House Speaker Jase Bolger
Jase Bolger Facebook.com

Democrats are calling for a special inquiry into whether House Speaker Jase Bolger and state Representative Roy Schmidt are guilty of ethics violations. A report by the Kent County prosecutor determined the two did not break any laws as they plotted Schmidt’s switch to the Republican Party, but the report says they did attempt to undermine the integrity of an election.

Their scheme included recruiting and paying a fake Democrat who would appear on the ballot against Schmidt. The idea was, the decoy would not campaign.   

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Law
6:01 pm
Tue July 17, 2012

Juvenile lifer ruling requires authorities to track down victims

There is some question on the reach of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office says it may only apply going forward and not to the 366 juvenile lifers currently serving in Michigan prisons.

Dawn Van Hoek directs the State Appellate Defender Office, which represents some of the juvenile lifers. She disagrees and said every juvenile sentenced to life without parole should get a new hearing.

“I think they’ve already signaled, the Supreme Court has, and, you know, you have to wonder why even bother if you’re not going to apply it to the hundreds of people who were affected nationwide by these unconstitutional laws,” said Van Hoek.

That would also require the state to track down the families of murder victims who have a right under Michigan law to testify at sentencing hearings.

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Education
2:24 pm
Tue July 17, 2012

Superintendent: School funding reform should include early childhood, college

Mike Flanagan
Mike Flanagan Twitter.com

The state’s education chief says money for early childhood education and community colleges needs to be part of fixing Michigan’s school funding system. Mike Flanagan is the Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction and leads the state Department of Education.

He spoke today at the first public hearing held by Governor Rick Snyder’s workgroup that’s devising a school funding proposal. The governor wants a system that rewards proficiency.
    
Flanagan says that won’t happen if the state doesn’t find a way to offer universal early childhood learning.

"We spend a billion dollars per grade and we spend nothing on early childhood, and we wonder why the results are exactly the same, and we blame the teachers, we blame the state superintendent, we blame the parent for not reading to them enough, and the bottom line is, we should blame the system first and foremost," he said.

Flanagan says every student should also be guaranteed a year or two of community college or its equivalent.  
    
The school funding workgroup will spend the summer working on its recommendations.

Education
4:19 pm
Mon July 16, 2012

School funding overhaul could be on the way

Richard D. McLellan
Richard D. McLellan Wikimedia Commons

An overhaul of how Michigan pays for public schools could be on the way. Gov. Rick Snyder wants that to be a big part of his budget proposal in early 2013.  The governor has named Lansing attorney Richard McLellan to lead the process.
    
McLellan says the state’s funding system is overdue for a shakeup.

“This is a 1979 law. It’s quite out of date," he said. "It’s a school district-centric model that doesn’t necessarily provide the flexibility for parents and for students that people are now demanding."

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Politics
6:02 pm
Fri July 13, 2012

Get your tickets: Ballotpalooza coming to Michigan Nov. 6

Join Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta every Friday for a spin around Michigan politics.

Ballotopia. Ballotmania. Ballotpalooza: These are all nicknames given to the situation that we’re seeing right now as various groups and organizations try to get Michigan voters, come November, to amend the state's constitution. On Election Day, we could see up to six ballot proposals and a referendum on the state’s  controversial Emergency Manager law. If all of these ballot proposals are, indeed, approved this would be the most statewide ballot questions on a single election day since 1982.

Grassroots campaigns? Not so much

It's nice to think that, in our democracy, these ballot campaigns are being led by grassroots groups - regular folks - trying to change their state's law. But, that's  not the case in this election cycle. Each  of these ballot initiatives have backers - some business groups, some union groups - with deep pockets. It costs a lot of money to organize these campaignsand to get people into the field to gather signatures. In fact, that’s why we saw some ballot campaigns fizzle this summer like the group trying to get a question about marijuana legalization on the ballot.

Just Say "No"

The deadline for these ballot campaigns to submit to the state enough valid signatures - more than 320,000 -  was Monday.  And, in the midst of the petition filings,  we saw some push back against "ballotmania. A "just-say-no" to every ballot question campaign has popped up. It's a coalition of businesses that thinks the easiest way to kill everything they don’t like, especially the ballot questions dealing with unionization – these have to deal with constitutionally protecting collective bargaining rights - and a mandate that the state increase the amount of energy it gets from alternative sources to 25 percent by 2025, is blanket opposition.

Be Careful What You Wish for...

At first glance, it seems like business groups would be in favor of some of these ballot questions, like the amendment that would require super-majorities in both the state House and Senate to raise taxes. Seems simple, right? Businesses tend to not like taxes, but there is some concern in the business community that a super-majority requirement for new taxes could actually make it harder to cut taxes. That's because, typically, when the Legislature cuts or eliminates a tax, it has to come up with some replacement for that lost revenue. Even something that’s considered a net tax cut – like last year's elimination of the Michigan Business Tax or this year's tax on industrial equipment  – required the state Legislature and Governor Snyder to replace some of that revenue. If lawmakers had had to meet a higher bar for other revenue – like last year’s  controversial tax on pension income – they couldn’t have touched the business or industrial equipment tax.

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Law
4:41 pm
Fri July 13, 2012

Court: Gun boards can use juvenile offenses to reject permits

Mike Russell Wikimedia Commons

The state Court of Appeals says a county concealed gun board did not exceed its authority when it denied a permit based on a man’s juvenile crime record.

Jameel Stephens says the Wayne County Concealed Weapons Board should not have rejected his request for a concealed pistol permit, because he was found guilty as a juvenile of breaking and entering.
    
Stephens argued that juvenile proceedings are supposed to be shielded from that sort of decision-making. He says they are also not, officially, criminal convictions.
    
Michigan is what’s called a “shall-issue” concealed gun state. That means gun boards must approve permit requests unless there is a clear reason to deny a person.
    
The Court of Appeals says state law clearly allows gun boards to deny concealed pistol permits to people found guilty of a juvenile offense – if that offense is a felony when an adult is charged. That would include breaking and entering.

Politics & Government
5:29 pm
Thu July 12, 2012

Snyder might sign voter ID bill

Rick Snyder for Michigan Facebook.com

Governor Rick Snyder’s recent veto of Republican-sponsored election changes may not be the final word on the matter.

The governor last week vetoed legislation that would have required people to show a state-issued ID and affirm their U.S. citizenship before they could receive an absentee ballot.

Geralyn Lasher is the governor’s communications director. She says the governor is not totally opposed to voter ID requirements.

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Law
4:55 pm
Wed July 11, 2012

MI Supreme Court will hear arguments on PA 4 referendum

Michigan Hall of Justice
User Xnatedawgx Wikimedia Commons

The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on whether a referendum on Michigan’s emergency manager law should appear on the November ballot.

The arguments will take place in two weeks. A business coalition that supports the emergency manager law is trying to keep the question off the ballot.

The group Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility says a section of this petition was printed in a type size that was too small, and that makes it ineligible.

The group lost before the state Court of Appeals, which said a court precedent left no choice in the matter.

Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility wants that precedent reversed. And if it wins, that decision could affect other ballot campaigns that filed this year.
       

The ballot campaign Stand Up For Democracy says there was no error. But it says even if there were, a technicality should not keep a question off the ballot after 226,000 people signed petitions supporting it.

Politics & Government
4:34 pm
Tue July 10, 2012

Governor's office calls special election to replace McCotter

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley
Brian Calley Facebook.com

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley has called a special election to fill the vacancy created by the sudden resignation last week of U.S. Rep.Thaddeus McCotter (R-Livonia). It is the latest twist in a bizarre series of events that began when McCotter failed to make the ballot because of faked petition signatures.
       

The special election will be held on the same date as the Nov. 8 general election. The lieutenant governor says McCotter resigned too late to avoid calling the special primary a month after the regular primary, which will cost taxpayers $650,000.

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Politics
4:31 pm
Mon July 9, 2012

Today is deadline for filing ballot petitions

Immortalpoet Flickr

Today is the deadline for ballot campaigns to turn in their petitions. A total of six questions and a referendum have filed to appear on the November ballot. One of the questions up for voter approval would require two-thirds super-majorities for the Legislature to increase a tax.

Brighton Township Treasurer Lana Theis is leading the ballot drive. She says it should be easier to lower taxes than it is to increase them.

“If you ask the average homeowner, who do you think knows how to spend your money better – you or Lansing? It’s a very, very simple question, it should be the case that it has to cross party lines, and it has to be a super-majority not a simple majority," she said.

Another drive to protect collective bargaining rights for home health aides who are paid by Medicaid also filed today petitions. An amendment to stop a new publicly owned Detroit international bridge is also expected to file this afternoon.

A ballot drive to ban a gas drilling process known as “fracking” did not make the deadline and will focus now on the 2014 ballot.

Politics & Government
2:53 pm
Fri July 6, 2012

Renewable energy campaign files for November ballot

Wind turbines could be part of the renewable energy campaign.
user imma MorgueFile.com

The campaign to put renewable energy targets into the state constitution filed 550,000 petition signatures today to qualify for the November ballot.

This campaign pits utility companies and their employee unions against energy entrepreneurs who see a business opportunity in amending Michigan’s constitution. The amendment would require energy providers to generate a quarter of the state’s electricity using wind, solar power or other renewable resources by 2025.

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It's Just Politics
1:25 pm
Fri July 6, 2012

Snyder and GOP go from 'In a relationship' to 'It's complicated'

Governor Snyder surprised many political watchers this week by vetoing three Republican-sponsored elections reforms bills.
Photo courtesy of the Snyder administration

This week on It's Just Politics: It's all about relationships. Specifically, the relationship between Gov. Rick Snyder and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature. And, the status on this one just went from “in a relationship” to “it’s complicated.”

A Gubernatorial Veto

The Governor vetoed three bills this week – they were part of a Republican elections package, most of which he signed. The three vetoed bills would have required people applying to vote for the first time or for absentee ballots to check a box affirming they are U.S. citizens. Another would have required photo ID for an absentee ballot. And, the third would have required state training for people who want to register voters. The Governor said the bills that he vetoed were too confusing and might discourage people from voting when the should should be making it easy to vote.

Lansing Democrats, Republicans Shocked

By vetoing these bills, Snyder not only broke with legislative Republicans, but also with established Republican Party opinion on how elections should be conducted. It's a classic divide between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives versus liberals, and it reflects how each side thinks the other party games the system to pirate elections. Republicans are concerned with ballot security - making sure only people who are supposed to vote actually cast a ballot. Democrats are more concerned about ballot access - that as many people as possible are allowed to vote.

Breaking Up is Hard To Do

These recent vetoes have many political-watchers wondering: What does this mean for the relationship between Gov. Snyder and Republicans? Is the Governor standing on principle, or showing there is a price to be paid for blocking his plans for an international bridge, road funding, opposing him on immigration and health care. The joke around town used to be that when Governor Snyder said something was, "not on my agenda” that really meant: "I’ll sign it if you send it to me.” Not so much any more.

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Law
4:36 pm
Mon July 2, 2012

Elections officials refuse to block ballot question

The state Court of Appeals, seen here, could be the next stop for a business group that’s trying to keep a proposal to protect collective bargaining off the November ballot.
user BotMultichil Wikimedia Commons

The state Court of Appeals could be the next stop for a business group that’s trying to keep a proposal to protect collective bargaining off the November ballot. That’s after state elections officials said they don’t have the legal authority to block the question.
    
The business-backed group Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution asked the Secretary of State to rule a question not eligible to appear on the ballot – even though the union-backed petition drive collected 650,000 names. That’s double the number needed. But the business group says the question itself is broad and sweeping when it should be narrow in scope.

The ballot question would amend the state constitution to guarantee collective bargaining rights and preempt a right-to-work law in Michigan. It would also roll back Republican-sponsored efforts to limit union fundraising and organizing.

The state’s election director says in a letter that the law does not give the Secretary of State the authority to unilaterally declare a question invalid. Attorneys say they may seek a court order to keep the question off the ballot.

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Law
4:29 pm
Mon July 2, 2012

Senator: Public defenders representing children, mentally ill should be specialists

user mconnors MorgueFile.com

State lawmakers are in the process of drafting legislation to make sure people who cannot afford attorneys get adequate legal representation in criminal court. One of the complaints about Michigan’s system is it does not ensure public defenders have the skills and experience they need to properly represent their clients.

State Senator Bruce Caswell served on the governor’s commission on indigent defense. He says the system has to recognize the special needs of defendants who are children or people with mental health issues.

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It's Just Politics
5:20 pm
Fri June 29, 2012

Stuck between a rock and a hard place: Moderate state Republicans post-healthcare ruling

Photo courtesy of the Snyder Administration

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is officially the law of the land.  The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. The health and welfare of millions of people right here in Michigan is at stake. And, it has broad policy implications. But, of course, this is It's Just Politics... which means Rick Pluta, Lansing Bureau Chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network, and Zoe Clark, Michigan Radio's resident political junkie, are not talking policy but, instead, the politics of the Court's decision.

Rick Pluta: A couple of weeks ago we had the Left galvanizing around what’s become known as “Vagina-gate.” A couple of female lawmakers sanctioned, silenced for a day, by state House Republican leaders for things said during a heated abortion debate. It gave the Left a memorable moment to create what appears to be a stark choice to get their people out in November. Now, the Right has this health care decision. Attorney General Bill Schuette – one of the state’s top Republicans and Mitt Romney’s Michigan campaign chair - says this decision is also a political tool.

Bill Schuette: "This decision, I believe, is going to raise the stakes in November. I think it will energize, it will cause a firestorm of protest to be exhibited in the ballot box in November and I think, in the end, it is going to be one of the things that is going to cause Mitt Romney to be the next President."

Zoe Clark: And, so, the Right is incensed. They’re going to use this issue to get out the vote in November, to protest this decision. And Schuette also says, in effect, don’t let this issue whither on the vine.

RP: Right. There are things the state has to start doing to comply with the health care law. The most immediate one is to create these so-called healthcare exchanges where people and businesses can shop online for coverage. And the attorney general is counseling the legislature: Don’t do it. And, of course, Governor Snyder has called for these exchanges. Snyder is not a fan of the law but he is a fan of the exchanges and says it would be a mistake to wait to implement them.

ZC: So, Rick, this seems to be just one more issue where we're seeing division between the very conservative Attorney General, Bill Schuette, and a more-moderate Governor, Rick Snyder.

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Politics & Government
12:12 pm
Fri June 29, 2012

Snyder signs cut in Michigan income tax

Governor Rick Snyder has signed a reduction in the state income tax.

Last year, Gov. Snyder and the Legislature delayed a reduction in the income tax rate to January 1 of 2013. This measure moves it up a little. Now, the rate will drop -- slightly -- to 4.25 percent on October first. There will also be an increase in the personal exemption.

Democrats say the tax relief offered is a pittance – about 50 cents a week – compared to the dozen tax breaks for working poor households, homeowners, and seniors on pensions that were eliminated last year as part of a Republican-led tax overhaul. That did not stop most from voting for the rollback.  

Republican leaders say the economy – and, therefore, revenue – has improved enough for the state to afford a tax cut. It also happens to coincide with an election year. The two Republican sponsors of the tax rollback come from competitive districts.

Politics & Government
5:11 pm
Thu June 28, 2012

After Affordable Care Act ruling, health care advocates, business groups, politicians look to future

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, seen at his inauguration last year, wishes to postpone creating online health care exchanges until after November.
user Aaronjbaylis Wikipedia Commons

There are some differences of opinion in Lansing on what should happen now that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld President Obama’s healthcare law.

Health care advocates in Michigan are cheering the ruling while business groups say it will drive up their costs and still hope Congress will repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Karen Holcomb-Merrill is with the Michigan League for Human Services. She says it’s time for Michigan to start enacting the law.

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