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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Politics
4:43 pm
Thu December 22, 2011

Michigan Governor Snyder signs measure banning live-in partner health benefits

Update 4:43 p.m.

Governor Rick Snyder has approved a ban on health benefits that cover the live-in partners of many public employees in Michigan.

The governor says the ban will not apply to the partners of state civil service workers and people employed by public universities.

In a letter to the Legislature, the governor says the law cannot violate the independence of the state Civil Service Commission and public universities. Both are autonomous under the Michigan Constitution.

But Republicans in the Legislature say the law applies to all public employees, and not just people who work for school districts and local governments.

Republicans like state Representative Dave Agema say live-in partner benefits are a way to circumvent Michigan’s voter-approved amendment outlawing same-sex marriage and civil unions:

“All I ask is, if you really want this, do another referendum. Bring it before the people. See what kind of probability you will get there. I will tell you right now, they will never pass that,” says Agema.

The American Civil Liberties Union says it will be in court soon to challenge the new law.

3:44 p.m.

Governor Rick Snyder has approved a measure to ban taxpayer-funded health benefits for the unmarried live-in partners of most public employees in Michigan. The governor sent a letter to the Legislature saying he signed the bill with the understanding that it does not apply to employees of public universities.

Education
2:14 pm
Wed December 21, 2011

Benton Harbor schools avoid further financial reviews, for now

Benton Harbor Area Schools will be able to follow thier own map to success by retaining local control of the district. The district will have to maintain progress in order to avoid another state review.
Lindsey Smith Michigan Radio

Michigan schools superintendent Mike Flanagan says a review of the Benton Harbor schools finds evidence of "probable financial stress." But Flanagan is not recommending a deeper, 60-day review. He says that’s because the district has taken “several steps in recent days to correct the deficit including:”

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Politics
5:26 pm
Tue December 20, 2011

Michigan AG Shuette: medical marijuana law has more holes than swiss cheese

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said he believes the state’s medical marijuana law has been hijacked by people who want to legalize the drug. Schuette said he believes voters were misled by drafters of the law about its true purpose, and that’s one reason why he does not support an expansive interpretation of the act.

“We should not have nod and a wink justice,” said Schuette, adding:

“Have an honest debate about it instead of putting together a patchwork law that is so full of holes it makes a mockery of swiss cheese, and if you listen to the comments of the authors of it, it was purposefully done vague.”

Schuette opposed the medical marijuana question when it was on the ballot in 2008, and he led the campaign to reject the initiative. The attorney general has issued formal opinions restricting medical marijuana and backed efforts to close dispensaries.

Medical marijuana advocate Rick Thompson of the Michigan Association of Compassion said Schuette is wrong about the law’s supporters. Thompson calls Schuette’s comments “smoke and mirrors” that avoid a discussion about the benefits of medical marijuana. 

medical marijuana
6:05 pm
Fri December 16, 2011

AG looks to shut down marijuana dispensaries

State Attorney General Bill Schuette has gone to court to close down three mid-Michigan marijuana dispensaries. Schuette’s lawsuits say the dispensaries are public nuisances that are operating outside Michigan’s medical marijuana act.

The dispensaries are all in Lansing and Jackson. Schuette says employees of the dispensaries illegally took money for medical marijuana card applications, and sold marijuana to undercover officers. That’s even though a Court of Appeals decision earlier this year says it is illegal to buy or sell the drug. That decision is being appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Marijuana also remains illegal under federal law, although federal prosecutors have been instructed not to pursue medical marijuana convictions.

Schuette says, right now, pretty much the only way for medical marijuana card holders to legally possess the drug is to grow it themselves, and that he supports law enforcement efforts to shut down dispensaries that are distributing marijuana.

courts
6:00 pm
Fri December 16, 2011

Court: Construction co. not responsible for poor road condition

Michigan Supreme Court Hall of Justice
Eridony flickr

The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled an Upper Peninsula mining company is not legally responsible for maintaining an intersection heavily traveled by its trucks – or for the critical injuries suffered by a bicyclist who lost her balance at the rough juncture.   

Debra McCue was tossed from her bike while riding in the DALMAC bicycle tour along the southern edge of the Upper Peninsula. She hit a rough patch at an intersection with a private gravel road owned by the ON Minerals Company. The intersection is frequently used by the company’s trucks and bulldozers. The Supreme Court earlier dismissed the family’s lawsuit against the state Department of Transportation because McCue had signed a waiver.

The Supreme Court’s Republican majority says the private company had no duty to maintain the intersection, even if it was responsible for wearing it down to the point where steel support beams were exposed. The court’s Democrats dissented. Justice Michael Cavanagh wrote that, at the very least, the mining company should have informed the state about the condition of the intersection.

Courts
5:37 pm
Fri December 16, 2011

Inkster judge placed on paid suspension, script to be flipped

Even though she's been on paid administrative leave since last April (and now she's on a paid suspension), Judge Sylvia James is still listed at the Judge in Michigan's 22nd District Court.
screen grab from City of Inkster website

Last April, Inskster District Court Judge Sylvia James was placed on administrative leave with pay after city officials leveled charges of financial mismanagement against her.

As Michigan Radio's Sarah Alvarez reported, James "could not explain why court funds were used to pay for travel, clothing, and other expenses."

Another judge took her place, and the State Supreme Court started looking into the charges.

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Politics
5:41 pm
Thu December 15, 2011

Lawmakers close to home heating deal

bucklava flickr

Discussions continue between House and Senate Republicans on how to ensure low-income families in Michigan have help with their winter heating bills. Today is most likely the final day of official meetings of the Legislature in 2011. And lawmakers don’t want to leave for their month-long winter break without passing a plan for home-heating assistance.

“We still have some numbers to crunch," said Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth). "As the rubber hits the road, this is all becoming very real, and we’re very confident on both sides that we’re ready to combine those ideas and come up with a solution.”

Horn says the state will reduce the amount of money a household can receive in home-heating assistance to $450 for the winter months. He says that will help ensure state money for heating assistance lasts until the spring. 

Politics
5:28 pm
Thu December 15, 2011

Snyder: "No decision yet" on domestic partner benefits

michigan.gov

Governor Rick Snyder says he has made no decision yet on whether to sign or veto a ban on taxpayer-funded health benefits for the live-in partners of public employees.

The governor said his team is still examining the measure to ensure it will not outlaw benefits offered to the domestic partners of university employees. There’s wide disagreement on whether that’s the case. But the governor has said he’d likely veto a measure that does not respect the independence of state universities.

“That’s where I want to go through the issues of uncertainty, the comments from all sides, and really analyze that," Snyder said. "It has to wait it’s time and place and that will be coming very soon.”

The governor has until December 27 to sign or veto the bill. He could also ask the Legislature to reconsider the measure. That would require the Legislature to ask for the bill to be returned.

Politics
9:27 pm
Wed December 14, 2011

Senate OKs bill allowing Oakland Co. GOP to redraw commission lines

Democrats in the Legislature are calling on Republican Governor Rick Snyder to veto a bill that would change the Oakland County Commission’s district lines. The measure would reduce the number of commissioners. And it would take the job of reapportionment out of the hands of a bipartisan reapportionment board that’s currently led by Democrats. Instead, the county commission – which Republicans control -- would re-draw its own district lines.

Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer called on the governor to reject an attempt by Republican lawmakers to meddle in local politics:

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Politics
3:53 pm
Wed December 14, 2011

Michigan Governor Snyder signs bill eliminating some "driver responsibility" fees

Governor Rick Snyder has signed bills to eliminate the fees charged to drivers convicted of driving without a license or insurance.

The $150 or $200 fees had to paid for two years on top of any other fines assessed for the infractions.

Critics say the fees were not fair, and encouraged some people to continue driving without a license or mandatory insurance coverage.

The fees generated somewhere between $8 and $13 million a year to help balance the state budget.

There is a movement in the Legislature to eliminate driver responsibility fees for some more-serious offenses, such as drunk driving, but it would cost the state money it cannot replace.

Jobs
2:43 pm
Wed December 14, 2011

Michigan's unemployment rate falls to 9.8 percent in November

Michigan's unemployment rate fell by eight-tenths of a percentage point last month to 9.8 percent. This is the first time since November of 2008 that Michigan's jobless rate has dropped below 10 percent. The national November unemployment rate is 8.6 percent.

The jobless rate fell by eight-tenths of a percentage point in November. That’s a sharp drop and much of it was due to new hiring. But retail was the only sector to show significant growth from month to month and much of the decline is also due to about 19,000 fewer people in the workforce competing for available jobs. All told, there are still about 457,000 people in Michigan without jobs and looking for work.

At 9.8 percent, the state’s unemployment rate is still above the national rate.

When people who have quit looking are counted, along with part-time workers who’d like to be full-time, Michigan’s rate of unemployment and under-employment is 18.8 percent. 

Politics
5:52 pm
Tue December 13, 2011

Health exchange debate will continue in New Year

A debate over establishing an online Michigan exchange where people and businesses can comparison shop for health coverage have been pushed into next year.

Governor Rick Snyder has said he’d like to see a state-run exchange established soon to ensure Michigan does not get pushed onto a federal system set up under the new national health care law.

But he’s been getting pushback from some Republicans in the Legislature.

“My members do not like Obamacare and they see this as steps to the implementation of Obamacare," said State Rep. Chuck Moss (R-Birmingham). "And, given that it’s iffy in the courts and possibly going to be repudiated in the next election, why do we want to get on that train now?”

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Business groups have split on creating a state exchange. Governor Snyder says it’s a good idea even if the federal law is reversed.

Politics
5:40 pm
Tue December 13, 2011

GOP lawmakers nix move for Detroit bailout

Bernt Rostad flickr

Republicans in the state House said “no” today to Detroit lawmakers who tried to add $220 million for the city to a budget bill. Detroit officials say the money is owed the city from an earlier deal with the state.         

Detroit could run out of money to pay its bills by April. A state review team is examining the city’s finances in a process that could wind up with Governor Rick Snyder naming an emergency manager to run Detroit. But members of Detroit's legislative delegation say there are better options.

"It’s not a good investment in the state of Michigan to have your premier city go belly up and bankrupt, which will kill Standard & Poors’ rating of the state of Michigan as a state and all of the other cities and municipalities will go down the drain with them,” said State Rep. Fred Durhal (D-Detroit).

Durhal says he’s working on a plan to get a cash infusion to the city if it develops a state-approved proposal to manage its finances.

Politics
1:26 pm
Tue December 13, 2011

Setting up a Michigan health care exchange, legislators delay debate

The debate over establishing and paying for a state-operated health insurance exchange has been pushed into next year.

Action on the exchange stalled as House and Senate Republicans continue to disagree on whether it would amount to an endorsement of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

House Republicans would prefer to wait until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the federal law. Governor Rick Snyder says delay could force Michigan into a federal bureaucracy.

State Legislature
6:25 am
Mon December 12, 2011

Michigan Lawmakers expect home heating deal before winter break

Republican leaders at the state Capitol say they expect to wrap up work on a plan to ensure there’s money to help low-income families with their heating bills this winter. But, their efforts are already being criticized because they don’t encourage energy efficiency.

About 600,000 Michigan households needed heating aid last winter. House and Senate leaders say they will continue discussions to fix a problem created last summer by a court decision that forced lawmakers to find a new way to pay for the program.

Republican state Representative Ken Horn says the new program will not include money for a part of the program that pays for energy efficiency projects on public buildings.

“That is not helping low-income families. What we are doing very specifically it is very targeted, is helping the most-vulnerable families in the state of Michigan.”

Representative Jeff Irwin, a Democrat, says that’s a mistake.

“Shouldn’t we at least continue with the projects that are half-baked and not waste hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money?”

Republicans say that’s a discussion that can wait until next year.

The law
8:27 am
Sun December 11, 2011

Supreme Court won't change child sex-abuse conviction

The Michigan Supreme Court has let stand the child abuse conviction of a man who says he was denied a fair trial. The man says the prosecution and the judge established a presumption of guilt by having the eight-year-old victim testify in court from behind a screen that shielded her view of the defendant.

The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the case. The court order simply says a majority of justices decided the case no longer deserved the Supreme Court's attention.

The decision allows Ronald Rose's conviction and 25-year sentence to stand. But it also leaves largely untested the question of what courts may and may not do to protect young victims from the trauma of confronting the accused.

The Supreme Court did not explain its reasons for dropping the case. But during arguments, the justices were surprised to learn Rose's attorney never asked for an alternative to using the screen, and some of them wondered if that meant there was really no issue for the court to resolve.

Democratic Justice Marilyn Kelly dissented. Kelly said the screen presented what she called "the unmistakable mask of guilt" to the jury.

Courts
1:26 pm
Thu December 8, 2011

Michigan Supreme Court to hear case on MSU harrassment policy

The Michigan Supreme Court will decide whether Michigan State University can continue to enforce its rule against harassing its employees as they do their jobs.

Jared Rapp confronted and yelled at a university employee in an MSU parking garage after he found a ticket on his car.

The employee felt threatened and called the campus police.

The employee sat in his car waiting for the police to arrive while Rapp hovered outside the vehicle and snapped pictures with his mobile phone.

Rapp was charged with a misdemeanor and was later convicted of violating a university rule against interfering with MSU employees.

A judge reversed the conviction. He said the rule is so vague it would be hard for a reasonable person to know if they broke the rule.

The rule has been upheld by the state Court of Appeals, though, and the prosecutor hopes the Michigan Supreme Court will do the same.

Politics
11:29 am
Thu December 8, 2011

Legislators move to restrict live-in and same-sex partner benefits

It appears a measure to forbid public employers from offering live-in and same-sex partner benefits will soon be on its way to Governor Rick Snyder.

The measure was adopted yesterday by the state Senate.

It would affect state and local governments, as well as school districts, and community colleges, but not public universities.

State Senator Rebekah Warren is a Democrat who voted against the measure. She says the ban would make it harder for Michigan’s public employers to compete for the best workers.

“Our best and most-successful companies have already figured out that by creating diverse workforces and making sure health insurance is provided for their employees, they get the best environment. We’re tying the hands of our local governments and public employers if we don’t give them the same tools,” said Warren.

Republicans say public employers that offer live-in partner benefits violate the intent of the voter-approved amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Politics
11:20 am
Thu December 8, 2011

Court will hear exchange student discrimination case

The Michigan Supreme Court has ordered a lower court to decide whether the Michigan High School Athletic Association discriminated against a former exchange student from South Korea.

The MHSAA said he was only eligible to play one year of high school football and denied him permission to be a member of the Hudson High School varsity team.

The rule is meant to stop schools from recruiting exchange students to build championship teams.

The state Department of Civil Rights sued the high school athletic association for discrimination based on race and national origin.

*Correction - an earlier version of this story stated the Michigan Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The text and title have been corrected in this version.

Politics
3:38 pm
Wed December 7, 2011

Michigan Republicans: Ignore the apportionment commission, draw your own boundaries

A fierce partisan battle among Oakland County politicians played out in front of a state House panel at the state Capitol today.

Democrats tried and failed to block a Republican effort to let the GOP-led Oakland County Commission redraw its own district lines.

The district map was already adopted earlier this year by a bipartisan apportionment commission, and it was upheld by the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Democrats called the action to redraw the map a brazen effort by Republicans to undo a county commission map they don’t like.

Oakland County Commissioner David Woodward is a Democrat opposed to the bill.

“That this is being brought up, introduced after the rendered decisions, speaks of partisan overreach, specifically, Republican Party overreach - an attempt in this body to undo a process that has already run its course,” said Woodward.

The Oakland apportionment commission has a Democratic majority, while the Oakland County Commission is led by Republicans.

The bill would also reduce the number of county commissioners.

Republicans say the bill is designed to save taxpayers money.

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