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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

The Republican controlled state Senate has approved a measure to rein in the authority of state regulators to enact environmental protection rules.

The bill says Michigan’s environmental protection rules cannot be stricter than federal rules unless a law is passed to allow it.

Republican state Sen. John Proos says environmental policy should reflect the fact that Michigan competes with other states for jobs.

"We can’t operate in a vacuum in Michigan," said Pross. "If it’s more difficult to do business in Michigan than it is in Indiana, businesses and industries who hire Michigan families could just as soon choose the less-expensive option or the more-efficient option. Every day, other states benchmark against us. We should do the same to make sure we put ourselves in the best position to compete."

Republicans and some Democrats have long complained that Michigan’s environmental rules and the people who enforce them are too zealous.

Democrats, like State Senator Rebekah Warren, say the measure would make it harder for experts to address environmental crises that may be unique to the Great Lakes region.

"Federal standards to protect water quality, in particular, are designed to be the floor below which states are not allowed to drop," said Warren. "They are not written by people that feel the special stewardship like we do here in Michigan over one of the world’s most-important freshwater resources."

Opponents of the bill say it would make it more difficult to respond to an environmental crisis and it would make the process of protecting air and water more political.

One Democrat crossed over to join the Republican majority to approve the measure. The bill now goes to the state House.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Update 5:14 p.m.

Governor Rick Snyder’s tax overhaul plan began working its way through the Legislature today as it cleared the state House by a mostly party-line vote.

The Republican tax reform bill would replace the complex and unpopular Michigan Business Tax with a corporate profits tax.

Two-thirds of Michigan businesses would not have to pay the tax.

Part of the revenue lost to the state would be made up by eliminating dozens of tax breaks.

Many of them go to businesses and charities. Also gone would be earned income credit for working poor families and the income tax exemption for most seniors on pensions.

“This is a turnaround moment for Michigan,” said Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger. “Today’s winners are our local small business owners. Today’s winners are the unemployed because now those small business owners can create jobs.”

Democrats say it’s not fair to make working families and seniors make up the difference while most businesses pay less. Democratic state Representative Barb Byrum says it's not a fair trade.

“This legislation is not a shared sacrifice and should not be adopted. Today is just another day another day to give an 82% tax break to wealthy, corporate special interests. Another day to take from our children, our seniors, and our working poor."

The measure now goes to the Republican-controlled state Senate.

3:41 p.m.

Governor Rick Snyder’s tax overhaul plan has begun its march through the Legislature.

It won the approval of the state House by a mostly party-line vote.

The measure would scrap the complicated and unpopular Michigan Business Tax.

It would be replaced by a corporate income tax that would not be paid by two-thirds of the state’s businesses.

Part of that lost revenue would be made up by ending many tax breaks for businesses, working poor families, and seniors on pensions.

Noah Smith / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder was in Detroit today to outline his expansive education reform plans. The governor says Michigan does not have to spend more money to improve the performance of a failing education system.

The governor say it’s largely a matter of reallocating resources to reward success and to craft a system that reflects Michigan’s new economic realities.

Governor Snyder says his education plan would refocus schools on student advancement and performance, empower teachers and hold them responsible, and offer parents more options when schools are failing.

Allan Cleaver / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder says he may want to bank the money from an unexpected improvement in tax collections – if the windfall exists.

Early revenue projections suggest Michigan may collect $500 million more than anticipated.

But Governor Snyder says he’s not ready to count that money as part of his budget plans.

He says the state may be better off putting it into savings.

“I’m bullish that we’re on a positive economic path, but to say we’re going to see just an upward curve without a few bumps, I would be careful about speculating that given the challenge of gasoline prices and such.”

Democrats want to use any windfall to scale back proposed cuts to schools. The next official revenue estimate comes in mid-May.

The House and Senate are continuing to work this week on budget proposals with an eye toward finishing before June first.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

State Police officials told a legislative committee that devices designed to pull data from cell phones are only used to investigate the most-serious crimes and are not part of routine traffic stops.

State Police officials say the data extraction devices are rarely used – and never without a search warrant or the consent of a phone’s owner.

State Police Inspector Greg Zarotney says the devices are used when certain crimes are committed:

"Typically, and I would say overwhelmingly, they are used in high-level crimes to investigate child exploitation, homicide cases, high-level drug cases, those types of situations where we’ve obtained the cell phone either through a search warrant or their consent, and we’re doing some type of data extraction to build our case,” sais Zarotney.

But State Police officials do not know how often the devices have been used.

Representative Tom McMillan chairs the House Oversight Committee, and he says the possibilities created by new technology also pose new challenges to privacy.

"As technology evolves, we may need to think about how to assure the public of a negative – what we’re not doing," said McMillan, "I don’t know what that’s going to look like, how possible it is, but I do think that we ought to broach that and start looking at that."

McMillan might hold future hearings on electronic privacy and protecting people against overly intrusive searches of phones and personal organizers.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is worried state police may be extracting personal data from cell phones illegally; a concern state police say is unfounded.

The Michigan State Police came under criticism for attempting to charge the American Civil Liberties Union hundreds of thousands of dollars for access to records on how the devices are used.

Zarotney says that’s because authorities don’t keep specific records on the devices, and gathering the information would have required inspecting thousands of police reports.

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People and businesses that owe back taxes to the state of Michigan have until June 30th to pay up without paying fines and penalties.

There are potentially hundreds of thousands of people and businesses that owe the state unpaid taxes.

The state hopes to net $90 million dollars from the tax amnesty program. 

State Treasurer Andy Dillon says if you owe, now is a good time to pay:

"It doesn’t matter why you didn't pay your taxes – the penalties can be forgiven. And the penalties can be quite stiff. It depends on the tax that you’re talking about, but it can be as much as 25% of the liability that can be forgiven, and the sooner you pay it off, the sooner you stop paying interest on that obligation."

This is the third time since the 1980s the state’s offered amnesty to people and businesses with unpaid back taxes.

The program requires payment of all back taxes plus interest.

The amnesty program was approved by the Legislature last year to find some new revenue to help balance the budget.

The Michigan Tax Amnesty website declares "all excuses welcome."

Here's the program's TV spot:

Governor Rick Snyder offered some hints as to what his soon-to-be unveiled education reform plan will look like.

The governor addressed an education conference in East Lansing today.

Governor Snyder says student test scores are both “startling and scary,” and that Michigan is falling behind the country and the world in preparing young people for life after school:

“We need to do better and that’s something we need to focus on and we will,” said Snyder.

The governor says he wants to relax school regulations s to give teachers and principals more freedom and responsibility over educational decisions. And then he says the state will measure what happens:

“We need to put much more focus on proficiency, on growth, on measurements and results than we have had in the past," he said. "It’s about really delivering results for these kids. The whole system has to be geared to say, 'how do we make sure each and every child in our system gets a good year’s education each and every year?' Think about all the great talent, all the great resources that we have in our system, yet we’re not achieving the results that we have to achieve."

The governor also says he wants to do more to keep gifted teachers in classrooms instead of promoting them into administrative positions.

The governor says he envisions an education system that starts with pre-school and continues past college.

The governor will roll out his education reform agenda on Wednesday in Detroit.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

It appears Michigan may be in for a revenue windfall of about $500 million dollars more than  it was expected to take  in this year.

The state Senate Democratic leader says Governor Rick Snyder and the Legislature should use that money to avert cuts to schools.

The state Senate Democratic leader is calling for protections in the Michigan Constitution against using the School Aid Fund for any purpose other than K-through-12 education.

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer says she’s looking for any way she can to avert school aid cuts as high as $470 per student.

Nissim Benvenisty / wikimedia commons

Governor Rick Snyder says he is opposed to provisions in Republican budget plans that would restrict how money is spent on embryonic stem cell research at public universities.

Republican lawmakers are renewing efforts to enact additional rules surrounding the voter-approved amendment that allows public funds to be used for the research.

Voters approved the amendment to the state constitution in 2008.

Since then, Democrats have blocked efforts by opponents of embryonic stem cell research to demand reports or enact additional restrictions on  it, but now Republicans are in charge in the Legislature.

Governor Snyder is a Republican who supports the voter-approved amendment and stem cell research.

The governor says he wishes Republican lawmakers would leave stem cell research out of the debates on university spending:

"I think we need to focus on higher education, not stem cells. We passed a constitutional amendment on that topic some time ago and we need to follow through on what our voters said."

The governor has the authority to veto budget line items.

The governor and the Legislature are continuing to negotiate on the budget with the goal of having it wrapped up by June first.

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