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

The state Supreme Court has refused to take the case of a lesbian woman who wants the right to visit the children she helped raise with her ex-partner.

The court’s decision lets stand a lower court ruling that same-sex partners do not have custody rights in Michigan.

Renee Harmon and Tammy Davis were together for 19 years, and during that time started a family together. Davis served as the biological mother via artificial insemination to their three children. After the relationship broke up, Harmon was denied visitation and sued for parenting time.

Michigan does not recognize same-sex relationships - nor does it allow unmarried couples to adopt.

The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Harmon lacked the legal standing to sue.

The state Supreme Court allowed that decision to stand by refusing to take the case.

The court divided on party lines in its decision. Republican majority voted not to take the case. Democrats said the court should.

In her dissent to the order, Justice Marilyn Kelly wrote the case raises so many questions regarding the state constitution and parents’ rights that it “cries out for a ruling from the state’s highest court.”

Covair Owner / Flickr

The state attorney general’s office has filed the first charges under the Michigan’s updated law against human trafficking. A man is accused of forcing two teen-aged girls in Detroit to become prostitutes.

The man is charged with two counts of inviting teen-aged girls to parties and then forcing them to work as prostitutes, collecting all of the money, beating them for not earning enough, and sexually assaulting them himself. The attorney general’s new Human Trafficking Unit is trying to extradite him from California.

A study done last year for the Michigan Women’s Foundation found as many as 160 cases a month of girls being sold online or through escort services in Michigan. The study did not track how often teen-aged girls and boys are offered on the streets or in hotel rooms. But human trafficking is becoming more common across the country.

The Michigan Women’s Foundation says the new charges and penalties are useful – but the state should also have a “safe harbor” law that ensures people forced to become prostitutes are treated as victims and not as criminals.

Aflyingpsychofly / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder’s administration and state employee unions will open contract negotiations this week. The first topic of bargaining will be whether state workers will give up the salary and benefits they’ve already been promised.

The new state budget is not balanced yet. For one thing, the budget assumes millions of dollars in savings in employee costs. State state worker unions have yet to agree to those cuts. In fact, the state can’t even begin to negotiate unless the unions agree to re-open the current contracts. Kurt Weiss is with the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

“We know it’s a significant number. We know it’s a painful number.”

Weiss says the alternative to concessions is layoffs and privatizing services. The largest amount of money would come out of the state Department of Corrections.

State employee unions say state government is currently top heavy with managers and has too many contracts – and the Snyder administration should look those first before looking to squeeze more from frontline workers or lay them off.

YoungladAustin / Flickr

A new law seeks to clear up some confusion on when teen-aged drivers may have other teens in a vehicle with them. Governor Rick Snyder signed the law yesterday. It says teen drivers may carry passengers between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. to and from school, church, or work-related activities.

Jack Peet is the traffic safety manager for AAA of Michigan. He says it was good to make the law more clear. But he says the law could have been made better if it placed some new restrictions on passengers in vehicles driven by teens. He says passengers increase the likelihood that a teen will be in a fatal crash.

 “So limiting those to no teen passengers in the vehicle would be our preference and we’re just talking about drivers there. Obviously, adding teen passengers during that time frame increases the risk for those teen passengers as well, so this would make teens a lot safer if there were stronger restrictions on that.”

Peet says it would make sense to at least have a no-passengers rule when a teenager first gets a license to drive without an adult in the car.

USACOE

There is new evidence that Asian carp may have slipped past electric barriers in Chicago-area waterways. The barriers are meant to keep the fish from reaching the Great Lakes.

The news has launched a new wave of arguments over the threat posed by the invasive species.

The Army Corps of Engineers turned up nine positive tests for Asian carp DNA out of hundreds taken from Chicago-area waterways.

Federal officials say that’s not proof the invasive species is getting closer to Lake Michigan, or that it poses an imminent threat of infesting the Great Lakes.

The state of Michigan is suing the federal government to get the shipping locks shut down as an emergency precaution.

John Sellek is with the Michigan Attorney General’s office. He says there is a growing body of evidence that the threat exists.

“How many more warnings do we need at this point that that impending tragedy is coming? The time for studying is over. It’s time to take action.”

The state is appealing a judge’s refusal to close the Chicago shipping locks while the Army studies ways to permanently ensure Asian carp don’t become a Great Lakes problem.

Ep_jhu / Flickr

Job creation has been dragging for most of this year in the state and across the country. That helped push Michigan’s unemployment rate slightly higher to 10.5 percent in June.

There were 8,000 more unemployed people in Michigan last month – a total of 496,000 thousand people looking for work. The unemployment rate was inching downward as people found jobs in high-tech business services, health care, and manufacturing.

Bruce Weaver of the state Bureau of Labor Market Information says all that stalled in February.

“It appears that job levels have flattened out in the state and that’s across the board.”

The number of hours worked and payroll earnings also fell. The rate of unemployment and under-employment is 19.6 percent. That number counts part-timers who would like to work full-time, and former job seekers who got discouraged and quit looking.

user frank juarez / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder has signed a law that will make it easier for school districts to fire teachers in classrooms where students are struggling. It also eliminates discipline and layoff rules as a subject of collective bargaining with teachers unions. 

The governor says seniority is an outdated system for deciding which teachers are laid off first, and where they should work.

"We need a performance-based system that recognizes the very best that teachers can deliver and gives them good recognition and reward for those opportunities and that's what this is all about," said Snyder. "It's about moving forward and stop looking at a broken world of the past."

School employee unions say the new law will remove critical job protections and lead to districts getting rid of veteran teachers for financial rather than academic reasons.

Louise Somalski, with the American Federation of Teachers, says the new law takes away teachers’ rights to bargain for job protections as school districts face growing financial pressures.

"I’m afraid that when it comes right down to it, there so tight on money at the local school district level because funding has been cut, that the most-experienced teachers are going to be let go – and we want the most-experienced teachers with the kids and it's going to hurt the students in the long run."

A commission will make specific recommendations to the Legislature next year on how to measure teacher performance.

The new rules will take effect at the beginning of the school year that begins in the fall of 2012.

User Sagitariuss / Flickr

Children’s advocates and a federal judge have given Michigan another shot at fixing its foster care system. The plan was given the go-ahead today by a federal judge in Detroit.

The new agreement gives the state more time to hire and train caseworkers and  to get more children in foster care placed with permanent families.

The state also promised to pay more attention to older children in the system – especially those about to “age out” as they reach adulthood.

The state was out of compliance with an earlier agreement and this new decree represents a fresh start in an effort to resolve the five-year-old lawsuit. 

The consent agreement with the New York-based organization Children’s Rights was signed by Governor Rick Snyder and Department of Human Services Director Maura Corrigan – putting their credibility with the court on the line if the state fails to comply.

The first real test will come at the end of the year, when a court-appointed monitor files a report on the state’s progress in fixing its system for children in foster care.

Michigan will have to focus more of its efforts on finding homes for older children, and services for 18-year-olds who are about to age out of the child foster care system as part of a new court judgment. The new agreement is part of a five-year-old lawsuit against the state for its failures to place children in foster care with permanent families.

The Associated Press reports:

The state of Michigan and lawyers representing needy children have reached a new agreement on how to improve foster care and protective services.

A federal judge in Detroit approved the deal Monday. The state says it now gets more flexibility in complying with a 2008 consent decree. At that time, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm pledged to spend millions to help children in foster care and protective services, but her administration repeatedly got poor marks.

The new agreement extends certain deadlines to reduce the number of caseloads per worker. About 1,300 child-welfare workers retired last year, forcing the state to go on a hiring and training blitz.

Andrian Clark / Flickr

The state Senate has opened hearings on how Michigan will handle its responsibilities under the new federal health care law. If Michigan does nothing, the state will be placed in the federal system when the law is fully enacted in 2014.

Republican leaders expressed hope that federal courts will ultimately strike down the health care law. But Senate Insurance Committee Chair Joe Hune says Michigan needs to be ready.

"This is all because of Obamacare, which is a downright travesty that that was passed through at the federal level, but we’re in a position if we do nothing that we’ll have the federal government breathing down our neck to put something in place that we definitely do not like," said Hune. 

Senate committees were told by consumer groups, social services advocates and businesses that Michigan would be better off designing its own system than joining the federal plan or a multi-state consortium.

Legislative hearings on the state’s role in federal health care reforms could last a year.

Cle0patra / Flickr

Michigan Republicans may try to boost their clout by holding a closed-party presidential primary a week before the Super Tuesday elections next year. The plan must still be formally approved by GOP leaders in August.

Michigan Republicans plan to hold their presidential primary either February 28th or March 6th of next year. Only people who declare themselves Republicans would be eligible to vote in it.

The state GOP's policy committee unanimously adopted the plan during a conference call.

Michigan Republicans risk losing half their national convention delegates if they hold a primary before Super Tuesday voting on March 6th, but some GOP leaders say the state could reap political rewards by going early.

The proposal must still be approved by the Michigan Republican State Central Committee at its August meeting, and then adopted by the Legislature and approved by Governor Rick Snyder.

Michigan Democrats plan to hold closed-party caucuses in May. President Barack Obama is expected to be the only contender for the Democratic nomination.

The state Department of Education will no longer require people who serve on advisory panels to sign confidentiality agreements. The agreements required committee members to support all of a panel’s policy recommendations – even ones they don’t agree with.

The panels are made up of experts and stakeholders who help develop policy recommendations that go to the department and, sometimes, to the Legislature. People in the education community complained the signed statements seemed designed to stifle views that don’t go along with the group or the department. The department says it will no longer ask advisory panel members to sign the agreements.

Martin Ackley is with the state Department of Education. He says the goal is still to get the vast array of interests in education policy to reach consensus on complex questions.

“But if they don’t agree with the final consensus recommendation of the entire group, they can provide for a minority report that is in dissent.”

A government watchdog says it was a good idea to reverse the policy because it undermined public confidence that government is open to all opinions.

Corey Seeman / Flickr

People who work in Michigan’s film industry hope efforts to boost the incentives for TV, movie, and video productions are successful.

They say the recent $25 million cap on the incentives makes them too small to attract big productions.

Chris Baum helps market the state to Hollywood with Michigan Film First and Film Detroit.

Baum says the state does not have to be as generous as it has been in the past to movie-makers, but it still has to put more money into incentives if it’s going to build a movie industry here:

"It’s not brain surgery. We've invited an industry here. We've promised them that we wanted them here," said Baum. "We need to continue to giving them conditions that allow themselves to establish themselves here and then down the road, they'll be so comfortable coming to Michigan that we'll be able to pull back on the the incentives further."

Baum says Michigan needs to have at least $100 million available for incentives if it’s going to attract the big budget movies that generate the most economic activity.

State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville is expected to unveil a plan this week to boost the state’s film incentives.

Governor Rick Snyder dramatically scaled back the incentives saying they offered a poor return to taxpayers.

screen grab from YouTube video

The state’s largest teachers union says it will put its organizational muscle and money behind efforts to recall some Republican lawmakers.

The Michigan Education Association’s main complaints are cuts to school funding and new tenure rules.

Tenure rules adopted last week by the Legislature will make it easier for school districts to fire teachers.

Members of the MEA say they’re also angry at efforts to force them to pay more for their benefits. Doug Pratt, MEA spokesman, says the union has tried to work with some lawmakers on spending and education reforms:

"Our members across the state as well as the middle class at large have been under attack for six months now," said Pratt. "And we’ve done what we think we can do through the legislative process to reasonably work with people to come up with solutions that move the state forward. That’s not happening."

The MEA has 157,000 members and a large political action fund.

Ari Adler is the spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger, one of the targets of a recall campaign:

"It’s not a surprise to hear the MEA is going public with its war on those who are fighting for change in Lansing," said Adler. "We have known for some time now that they’ve been working behind the scenes on recalls and it seems as though they wanted to go public before someone outed them."

MEA spokesman Pratt says some individual union members were involved early in recall campaigns. Pratt says the MEA has made a strategic decision to not name the lawmakers who will be union recall targets.

 The state Department of Natural Resources says it will move slowly to enforce a ban on wild boar species that takes effect at the end of this week. The order declares some breeds of swine dangerous invasive species.

Joe Gratz / Flickr

In a blow to unions’ political fundraising, the Republican-led state Supreme Court has ruled automatic deductions from the paychecks of public employees for political donations is illegal. The GOP majority reversed a decision made by the court last December, when Democrats controlled the court.

The Michigan Education Association’s political action committee is fueled by contributions from teachers and school employees who agree to have their donations deducted automatically by the school district from their paychecks.

The Republican justices ruled that’s a violation of Michigan’s campaign finance law because public resources are used to support a political activity. They said it’s not enough for the union to reimburse school districts for the costs of administering the check-off system.

Democrats say the school districts did not spend any money on politics, and complained it appears the only reason the court reconsidered the decision is because the partisan majority changed as a result of last year’s elections.

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.

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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.

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