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

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.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder says a visit to Wall Street was an important first step toward winning a credit upgrade for Michigan, but there is still more work to be done.

The governor says he talked about the start of Michigan’s economic comeback in meetings with bond-rating agencies.

"I could give them cases of auto plants in Michigan adding second and third shifts that we’ve seen recently, plus the fact all the auto companies have in fact gone and have been hiring lots of engineers lately so it’s a great story," said Snyder.

The governor says he invited the firms to send people to Michigan and he plans more discussions in the future.

The state will likely have to show a longer trend of stable tax collections and more money in its emergency savings before it can return to its pre-2003 Triple-A credit rating.

That would reduce interest payments and the cost of building roads, schools, and hospitals.

Governor Rick Snyder and members of his budget team visited New York to meet with the agencies that set the state’s credit rating.

The state’s rating suffered due to the effects of the decade-long recession.

It's bond ratings are not that bad, but they could be better.

Governor Snyder traveled to Wall Street with state Treasurer Andy Dillon and Budget Director John Nixon. They made the case that Michigan deserves an upgrade because it’s overhauled its business tax and wrapped up its budget months ahead of schedule without resorting to accounting gimmicks and one-time fixes.

Sara Wurfel, the governor’s press secretary, said “one change in a state’s bond rating can actually mean millions of dollars in lower payments.”

The governor’s itinerary included meetings with Moody's, Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's. The meetings only opened the discussions with Wall Street, and Wurfel says there will be further negotiations as the governor tries to reduce the cost to taxpayers when Michigan borrows money.

A new report says anonymous donors have a growing influence in Michigan election campaigns.

The study by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network says independent groups that don’t have to reveal their donors spent $23 million on political ads last year.

The report shows both Governor Rick Snyder and his Democratic opponent, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, were among the candidates for statewide office who were aided by ads paid for by unknown donors to independent political committees.

The use of independent and untraceable ads is especially prevalent in state Supreme Court races, says Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Robinson says the donors may be invisible to the public, but they still want something for the money they are spending to support or oppose politicians:

"Whether it's a workplace regulation, an environmental deregulation, a budget earmark, a public works project, a tax not levied, whatever it is, and I don’t think we’re seeing half the story on the money that’s moving public policy."

Robinson says, in some cases, ads paid for by anonymous donors made up half the spending in a race, and that $70 million was spent on untraceable and independent election ads over the past decade.

"In all of these campaigns, voters have an interest in knowing who the real supporters of the candidates are," said Robinson. "It’s a mechanism for controlling quid pro quo corruption in politics."

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network is calling for a law to require independent groups that buy campaign or issue advocacy ads to identify their donors.

A member of the family that owns the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit has acknowledged giving money to a group that’s working to stop the construction of a competing bridge – including plastering a neighborhood with fake eviction notices.

But Matthew Moroun says his family had nothing to do with the flyers.

Flickr audreyjm529

A metro-Detroit lawmaker has proposed a statewide ban on pit bulls.

The measure sponsored by Representative Timothy Bledsoe would make it illegal to own a pit bull in Michigan by 2021. He says he was approached about the measure by a woman from his district whose niece was mauled by a pit bull. 

Mike Babcock / Flickr

A few hundred opponents of Michigan’s mandatory motorcycle helmet law rallied today at the state Capitol.

They support a state Senate bill that would allow riders 21 years and older to choose to ride without a helmet. They would have to have at least two years of riding experience, or have passed a motorcycle safety course.

Governor Rick Snyder says he's open to granting the wish of riders who want the helmet requirement repealed, but he also says he needs some assurances that the public won’t be saddled with big medical bills when helmetless riders are injured.

"And I’ve had an open discussion with them and I said one of the concerns that I want to look at is the cost to all of our citizens in the state, and understanding those and making sure we are doing it in a fair way," Snyder said.

Helmet law foes believe they have the votes in the Legislature to get a helmet law repeal passed.

Laura Brand-Bauer says she typically wears a helmet, but wants the option to ride without it.

"You know, I've ridden without a helmet on occasion in Ohio and Indiana and wouldn’t mind being able to do that when I felt like it," said Brand-Bauer. "I do believe that people should have a choice."

Insurance companies and traffic safety advocates say the helmet law is working and should remain as it is. Opponents of the law say training and experience are more important than wearing a helmet to avoid deaths and injuries.

user spicybear / Flickr

Michigan’s motorcycle helmet law is once again in the sights of advocates who say riders should be allowed to operate a bike without head protection.

Legislation approved today by the state Senate Transportation Committee would allow licensed operators to forgo a helmet if they are 21 years old and have had a motorcycle endorsement for two years; or they have passed a motorcycle safety course.

An employee in Governor Rick Snyder's office was treated and quarantined after a letter delivered to the office caused a burning sensation in his fingers. The letter had what was described as a "grainy substance" that caused the injury. The governor's office says the governor called the employee to make sure he is O-K. The Michigan State Police are investigating the incident.  

kwamekilpatrickbook.com

State Attorney General Bill Schuette says he will go to court to make sure any book royalties earned by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick go first toward paying his restitution debt to the state.

A Kilpatrick autobiography is expected to be released next month. Kilpatrick is in prison for failing to make restitution payments while enjoying an affluent lifestyle in Texas.

"When someone’s in the slammer, someone’s violated the law, and you owe citizens of the state of Michigan money, restitution, before you rake in royalties on a book deal, we need to make sure you even it up with the taxpayers."

Schuette says he will work with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy on a motion to tap any book royalties for restitution. Kilpatrick owes the city of Detroit more than $816,000.

A Kilpatrick spokesman did not return a phone call.

partnershipborderstudy.com

Legislation to create an authority to build a new international bridge in Detroit has been introduced in the state Senate.

Governor Rick Snyder is using a conference on Mackinac Island to sell the idea to lawmakers and business people.

He still has to win over skeptical Republicans in the Legislature who are not convinced there is no risk to taxpayers in the deal.

The bridge fight could pose his biggest intra-party squabble yet. It's a debate that’s expected to last through much if June.

The governor says the bridge is necessary to support Michigan’s growing export trade, saying the entire state benefits from the growth in exports:

"We had a big bounce back from 2009," Snyder said. "The jump this year has been very large and Canada is our biggest trading partner. We did over $44 billion in exports last year…and 49% of that was with Canada."

The governor says that includes agriculture products and manufactured goods from every corner of Michigan. Supporters of the bridge say there will be even more benefits if Canada and Mexico approve a free trade deal.

The owners of the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit are putting up a fierce fight including a statewide ad campaign to stop the bridge project.

They say there won’t be enough traffic to justify a second bridge.

The governor calls those claims "false."

Photo courtesy of the Snyder Administration

Two-thirds of Michigan businesses are in line for a tax rollback next year. The rest will pay a six percent tax on profits. Pensions in Michigan will be taxed for the first time. An income tax reduction will be delayed to save money to help balance a budget that reduces spending on schools, local governments, and higher education.

These are all details of a sweeping tax overhaul signed into law yesterday by Governor Rick Snyder.

Snyder made cutting and simplifying the taxes paid by businesses his marquee campaign promise, and he got to fulfill that promise just a few days short of five months in office.

“It will create jobs. I’m confident of that.”

The governor says Michigan’s business tax plan will be simpler, and fairer. Only a third of Michigan businesses – those with lots of shareholders and registered as “C” corporations under the tax code – will pay the six percent tax on profits after expenses.

The governor acknowledged some parts of the plan are controversial – especially taxing pensions. Next year, someone living on a $50,000 pension can expect to pay about $1,400 in state income tax.

Snyder says extending the income tax to people born after 1946 with pension income exceeding $40,000 means that share of the burden won’t be shifted to younger people.

“That’s going to help on that issue of keeping our young people right here in Michigan.”

And the governor – a former tech company CEO and venture capitalist -- says the state’s new business tax system should be solid enough to endure for another 50 years.

The state House has approved a measure that would eliminate the age restriction on children who hunt with an adult.

Currently, the state does not allow children under the age of 10 to hunt.

Republican state Representative Peter Petallia sponsored the bill. The measure would allow a child of any age to hunt, fish, or trap with an adult 21 years or older who has a license and has taken a hunter safety course.

"We spend too much time today behind TVs and computer screens and not enough time monitoring what youth are doing," said Petallia. "This gives us some an opportunity to get them out, spend some time with them and introduce them to our sport."

A handful of lawmakers voted against the bill. Some said children under 10 should not handle firearms. A few said hunting seasons with youth spook deer and other game before the regular season begins.

The bill now goes to the state Senate.

user aunt owwee / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder and legislative Republicans are expected to wrap up work this week on the budget. If they succeed, they will meet the governor’s target of finishing the budget four months ahead of the constitutional deadline.

Democrats, who are in the minority in the House and the Senate, have some objections, but expect to lose this week’s budget battle.

That won’t stop them from calling for using a revenue windfall to make sure schools don’t lose any money in the new budget.

The new budget deal struck this week between Governor Rick Snyder and Republican legislative leaders cuts the amount of money for redeveloping abandoned factories and preserving historic buildings.

The governor says the state won’t need to rely so much on targeted incentives in the future.

The new budget will zero out brownfield and historic preservation tax credits, and replace them with a new fund to offer economic development grants.

$50 million will be set aside for brownfields and historic preservation.

That’s $15 to $20 million dollars less than the state targets now.

But Governor Snyder says the state can do a better job of choosing projects "and hopefully make those dollars go farther than they are today."

Mark Morante, with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, says the state will target only projects most likely to be completed.

In the past, many tax credits that were awarded went unclaimed. He also says the state won’t need to rely on incentives as much because tax changes will bring down the cost of doing business.

"With this six percent corporate income tax and roughly an 80 percent cut in corporate taxes in general, our job will be a little easier on that side of the table, so we will probably need less incentives," said Morante. 

Those tax reforms have been criticized as a tax shift onto individuals. But the governor and his Republican allies in the Legislature say that will be worth it if it creates new jobs.

The Michigan Department of Management, Budget and Technology says the computer outage affecting Secretary of State branch offices will not be fixed before the close of business today.

A spokesman says technicians will work through the night, if necessary, to fix the problems.

The shutdown of a mainframe computer also prevents State Police troopers from conducting license and vehicle checks, but not from issuing tickets.

Michigan’s new monthly jobless rate of 10-point-two percent signals the state continues to recover slowly from the recession. The new unemployment figure is a drop of one-tenth of a percentage point from March to April, and is a full three percentage points below where it was at this time last year.

There’s plenty of evidence that Michigan is in the early stages of a comeback, but job growth remains anemic. The state added just three thousand jobs from March to April.

One early, promising sign, though: so far this year people are no longer giving up their job searches and leaving the workforce. But, Bruce Weaver of the state Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives says disgruntled ex-jobseekers aren’t resuming their search for work, either. When that happens, he says, that could signal growing faith that a recovery is underway.

“One of the first impacts you will often see is an increase in individuals entering the workforce, seeking jobs. There’s not any evidence in these numbers that’s happening yet in Michigan.”

And Michigan’s rate of under-employment, while edging downward, remains high. The combined rate of unemployment and under-employment is 20 percent.

The Michigan Supreme Court says a judge appointed by Governor Jennifer Granholm as she was preparing to leave office can stay on the bench. The state attorney general challenged the appointment, arguing it should have been made by Governor Rick Snyder after he took office at the beginning of this year.

Governor Jennifer Granholm filled the vacancy in December after she named Judge Amy Krause to the state Court of Appeals. Krause had just won re-election to the Lansing district court in November. Granholm named Hugh Clark to fill the balance of Krause’s term as well as to the new term that began January first.

Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette challenged the appointment to the new term. Schuette said it should have been made by the new governor, Republican Rick Snyder.

A bipartisan majority on the state Supreme Court ruled timing worked in favor of Granholm making the appointment. The court said Granholm held office until noon on January first, while Judge Clark’s new term began that morning. The ruling also means Governor Snyder will have the power to name people to jobs that begin the day he leaves office.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Budget officials were briefed Monday on how Michigan’s economic recovery is shaping up, and what that means for the state budget. The news was mostly good – it appears there’s another $430 million available to help balance the budget. 

 Now that it’s agreed Michigan’s economy is improving and there’s more revenue, the arguments have started about how to use that money.  

A budget panel will meet this morning to consider economic forecasts and project how much money the state has to spend in the coming fiscal year.

Michigan’s economy is in the early stages of rebounding and it appears the state is bringing in the tax revenue to prove it. Many lawmakers want to use the windfall - half a billion dollars or more - to reverse cuts to K-12 schools.  And Governor Snyder says some of the money could be used to roll back the size of proposed budget cuts:

“If there’s funds are available, we should be looking at how we deal with some of these cuts. These were tough calls.”

But Governor Snyder and other Republicans also say they want to be careful about spending additional revenue instead of fixing ongoing budget pressures. The governor says some of the money could also be used to shore up the state’s emergency savings in case the economy takes a another tumble.

Michigan Municipal League / Flicrk

Governor Rick Snyder had to compromise along the way-- but approval of his tax reform package hands the governor a significant legislative victory. And, signing the bill will allow the governor to retire the signature issue of his election campaign.

Governor Snyder campaigned heavily on scrapping the complex and unpopular Michigan Business Tax and replacing it with a corporate profits tax. He took office saying fulfilling that promise would be part of an agenda of “relentless positive action.”

“So I believe we’re on a positive path to make that happen. It’s that old ‘relentless positive action.’ I think it’s a little bit contagious and I hope it is.”

His legislative win caps months of negotiations that often placed him at odds with Republicans who opposed extending the state income tax to pensions. He scaled back his original propose, and also relented on ending the earned income tax credit for working poor families. The governor says he’s still happy with the result and predicts it will help spur job creation.

But not enough to convince many Democrats, who intend to make this tax package an issue in legislative elections next year.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Update 5:21 p.m.

Republicans eked out a legislative victory today as Governor Rick Snyder's tax overhaul package cleared the state Senate.

It fell to Snyder’s lieutenant governor to cast the tie-breaking vote.

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley delivered a short speech before he cast the vote to break the deadlock on the tax reform package he had a hand in designing.

Calley predicted some lawmakers will pay a price for supporting the administration's tax reforms.

"Because real change comes with real consequence," said Calley. "Real change will come with drama."

Seven Republicans joined Democrats to vote against the package, largely because the measure will end the tax exemption on pension income for anyone born after 1946.

Democrats say it will shift the burden of paying for government services to families and the elderly.

State Senator Steve Bieda was one of the Democrats who voted against the measure.

"It’s shifting the tax to those who are least able to pay in our society," said Bieda. "We are talking about the elderly, people who are living on pensions are going to see a huge increase. I think it’s unjust, unwise, and it’s certainly very unfair."

Bieda tried to delay the vote until next week when the state adopts new revenue numbers. It’s expected there will be a windfall of more revenue than was anticipated at the beginning of the year.

The package eliminates the Michigan Business Tax in favor of a corporate profits tax.

It also eliminates a host of tax breaks, including the income tax exemption for people on pensions.

Overall, the package rolls back taxes on businesses by nearly $2 billion. Most of the businesses that would benefit are small and medium-sized corporations.

Republicans say the result will also be a tax code that is simpler and easier to follow.

State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville says there are some hard choices in the package, but they combine to make Michigan more business-friendly.

"So we put the good, the bad, the ugly altogether in one package and said, we believe the greater good is worthy of some of the not-so-good or ugly, so to speak."

The Senate bill restores the earned income tax credit for working poor families, but at a reduced rate.

The House is expected to quickly concur with the Senate action and send the measure to Governor Snyder for his signature.

3:55 p.m.

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley has cast the tie-breaking vote to win Senate approval of Governor Rick Snyder's tax overhaul plan.

The package scraps the Michigan Business Tax in favor of a corporate profits tax.

It will be a net tax cut on many small and mid-sized businesses.

It also eliminates a host of tax breaks, including the income tax exemption for pensions.

Republicans say the result will be a tax code that is simpler and easier to follow and more business-friendly.

user aunt owwee / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder continues to negotiate with lawmakers to try to get his budget proposal through the Senate.

Parts of his proposal are facing a tough sell, even among his fellow Republicans.

The Snyder administration changed its position on eliminating the earned income credit, and now says families should still be able to claim it, but at a reduced rate.

Families eligible for the state credit in 2009 claimed an average of $432 per household. The Michigan League for Human Services says the reduced credit will still allow eligible families to take $140 off their 2011 tax bill, or add part of it to their return.

Governor Rick Snyder's administration has agreed to restore a reduced version of the state income tax credit for working poor families.

The reduced tax break will allow families that qualify to claim 6% of the federal earned income credit on their state taxes.

In the past families could claim 20%.

Snyder's original proposal called for elimination of the credit.

Alaina Buzas / Flickr

A state Senate committee opens hearings tomorrow on Governor Rick Snyder’s tax reform proposals.

Altogether, two dozen tax breaks could disappear if the governor’s plan is adopted.

Ending the tax exemption for pensions has gotten a lot of attention, but the plan would also largely eliminate the use of tax breaks that encourage the re-use of old factories and historic buildings.

Matthileo / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder enters a critical week as he tries to sell his tax and budget plans to state lawmakers. The governor is still trying to build support from his fellow Republicans in the Legislature. There’s wide agreement on scrapping the Michigan Business Tax and switching to a corporate profits tax while giving most businesses a tax cut. But even a lot of Republicans are balking at a new tax on pensions as well as ending nearly two dozen tax breaks.

On the budget side, many lawmakers continue to push back against the size of cuts the governor’s suggested for to K-through-12 schools. But the governor says the work will get done on time:

“I just view it as part of the process. We did our proposal.  We get different feedback from the House and the Senate. There’s differing views in both of those houses, and we’re going to work through it and we’re on a path to get it done by May 31st.”

That’s the deadline the governor has set for finishing work on the budget and tax reforms.

A state Senate committee is expected to hold hearings and vote on the governor’s tax plan this week -- with a Senate floor vote as soon as Thursday.

User khalilshah / Flickr

The new national employment report shows the economy is churning out new jobs as people return to the workforce to compete for them.

Governor Rick Snyder says that’s good for Michigan as he tries to convince state lawmakers to adopt his jobs strategy.

Private sector employment is considered a strong indicator of the strength of the economy and, for the first time in a long time, private companies are hiring at a faster-than-expected rate.

Governor Snyder says that’s good news.

User cedar bend drive / Flickr

Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed a lawsuit challenging the state Civil Service Commission's authority to approve contracts that allow benefit plans to cover the live-in partners of unmarried state employees.

The lawsuit says the commission exceeded its authority under the state constitution.

The contracts extend benefits to unrelated adults in a household -- that includes same-sex partners -- as well as their dependents

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