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. 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.

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Politics
5:35 pm
Tue November 8, 2011

Snyder: Financial emergency exists in Flint

Governor Rick Snyder says a financial emergency exists in Flint.

That determination could lead to the appointment of an emergency manager for the city.

"The State's decision shows how serious our financial challenges are in the City of Flint," Mayor Dayne Walling said in a statement. "Significant progress has been made to stabilize the City's finances during a very difficult economy, but without shared sacrifice across the board the City has not been able to implement all of the necessary cost-savings. When some don't share in the sacrifice, we are all forced to bear the burden. With the support of the people, I will continue serve the City of Flint."

The news comes just a few hours before the polls close in Flint.

Challenger Darryl Buchanan issued an appeal to his supporters to continue voting despite the decision.

A spokeswoman for Governor Snyder says the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with the election. Sara Wurfel says Snyder got the report this morning and reviewed it with the state treasurer before making the decision that an emergency exists.

The city has seven days to request a hearing to challenge the declaration, and if it does, that hearing would take place Nov. 18.

* An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that there are seven candidates in the mayor's race. There are only two - Walling and Buchanan.

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Election 2011
4:29 pm
Tue November 8, 2011

Scott recall seen as referendum on Snyder, GOP

Rep. Paul Scott's official website

Republicans and Democrats in Lansing are closely following a recall election in Genesee County. The target of the recall is the Republican chairman of the state House Education Committee, Representative Paul Scott.

The Michigan Education Association made Representative Scott the target of the recall effort. The union partially blames him for budget cuts to K-12 schools and tenure law revisions that make it easier to fire teachers. The recall petition also cites Scott’s vote in favor of the state tax overhaul that includes extending the Michigan income tax to seniors’ pensions.

At least $225,000 has been spent on both sides of the recall campaign. The effort has also sparked retaliation by the Michigan Republican Party against Democratic lawmakers across the state.

There are currently 32 more recall petitions circulating that target both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. If they’re successful, those recall questions would appear on the February 2012 ballot.

Politics
4:49 pm
Mon November 7, 2011

Michigan State Democrats call for “fracking” moratorium

Democrats at the state capital are calling for a two-year moratorium on a procedure used to extract hard-to-reach oil and gas deposits.

They are taking aim at a process called hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – where water, sand, and chemicals are sent down a well to loosen stubborn pockets of gas and oil.

Here's a demo of how it works from Chesapeake Energy:

Critics say it has caused pollution and dried-up water wells in other states.

State Representative Jeff Irwin thinks the procedure needs to be more tightly regulated as it becomes more common in Michigan.

He said more study is needed on the potential effects of deep-rock fracking on the world’s largest supply of fresh water.

“We have a tremendous amount to protect here in Michigan with our surface waters and our Great Lakes,” Irwin said. “When you think about what makes Michigan a special place to be, it’s really our water. It’s the one thing that we have that makes us unique over and above anyplace in the world. We have the best water resources in the world.”

Irwin said new rules should include limits on groundwater withdrawals and full disclosure of all chemicals used.

Brad Wurfel with the state Department of Environmental Quality said Michigan has some of the strictest fracking regulations in the country, and that the process has been safely used in the state's shallow rock for decades.

“If you look around the state, you’ll see where oil and gas producers over the past 60 years have fracked probably on the order of around 12,000 wells,” said Wurfel.

Wurfel said the state updated its drilling regulations in May to address hydro-fracking deeper into the rock.

Politics
5:02 pm
Fri November 4, 2011

Emergency manager opponents tout petition numbers

Organizers of a campaign to repeal Michigan’s new emergency manager law said they’re in the final stretch of gathering petition signatures.

Herb Sanders is with the group Stand Up For Democracy. He said the organization is getting close to its target of 161,000 voter signatures. That would suspend the law, and possibly the authority of the emergency managers in charge of three cities and one school district.

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Politics
5:19 pm
Thu November 3, 2011

Michigan Supreme Court wants more before taking on emergency manager case

The Michigan Hall of Justice.
Michigan Supreme Court

The state Supreme Court said it wants more information before it responds to Governor Rick Snyder’s request for a speedy ruling on whether Michigan’s new emergency manager law is constitutional.

Governor Rick Snyder took the unusual step of asking the state Supreme Court to take the case without waiting for lower courts to rule first.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of voters from several cities who say the emergency manager law violates separation of powers and their right to self-government.

The law made it easier for the state to appoint emergency managers, and dramatically expanded their authority over the local governments they are supposed to fix.

The Supreme Court gave both sides until mid-December to file arguments on why the justices should circumvent the usual path of a lawsuit through the appeals process, and why they should win in the end.

There is also a petition drive underway to call a referendum challenge to the emergency manager law.

Auto/Economy
5:49 pm
Wed November 2, 2011

House approves helmet law repeal; future of bill uncertain

Motorcycle riders travelling without helmets.
Turtlemom4bacon Flickr

The state House has approved a measure to repeal Michigan’s motorcycle helmet requirement for riders who are at least 21 and have two years experience.

Opponents of the helmet law have been trying to get rid of it since it was adopted in 1976.

State Representative Paul Opsemmer supports the repeal. He said Michigan has a stricter helmet law than any neighboring state and that has had an effect on tourism.

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Politics
5:06 pm
Wed November 2, 2011

Michigan House approves workers compensation overhaul

The Michigan House of Representatives passed changes to the state's worker-compensation system.
Lester Graham Michigan Radio

The state House has approved an overhaul of Michigan’s worker-compensation system. That system is supposed to pay benefits to people injured on the job.

Business groups and Republicans say an overhaul of the system is needed to reduce insurance rates paid by employers, and get people back to work more quickly – even if it’s a job that pays less.

They say a leaner and less-expensive system is still needed to make the state more employer-friendly.

Representative Bradford Jacobsen (R-Oxford) sponsored the bill.

“We’re not talking about someone driving 50 miles looking for a lawn-mowing job. But we do ask, if you’re on work comp that if you’re able to go back even in a marginal job to get back on some earning capacity to go ahead and do it,” said Jacobsen.

State Representative Vicki Barnett (D-Farmington Hills) opposed the overhaul.

She says it will reduce benefits for injured workers and force some of them to take lower-paying jobs before they are fully healed:

“What we do here matters to people and to families every day. This particular bill will be hurting families, workers, and the very people we came here to protect,” said Barnett.

Democrats also say the changes are not needed because Michigan’s unemployment coverage rates have gone down in 12 of the past 16 years.

They say the changes could become harder for employees to file claims or receive benefits they deserve.

Transportation
6:37 am
Mon October 31, 2011

Snyder, federal officials to address rail summit

Michigan Municipal League Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder and federal transportation officials will speak today at a conference in Lansing on improving rail service in Michigan.

Michigan has 540 miles of publicly owned rail.

The governor has called for improving and expanding that system to move people and cargo more quickly and efficiently. He said he will seek more federal dollars and wants part of vehicle registration fees to be used for improving mass transit. 

“He believes very strongly that infrastructure is very important both to Michigan’s economy and to the future and that rail is very important to that mix, both passenger and freight," said Sara Wurfel, the governor's press secretary.

The state recently won a federal grant to purchase and upgrade 140 miles of track to be part of accelerated rail service between Detroit and Chicago. The governor’s plans for the state include making Michigan a central point in a regional business corridor that runs from Chicago to Toronto.

Environment
4:35 pm
Thu October 27, 2011

States seek action on Asian carp from U.S. Supreme Court

Some states want the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the Asian carp fight.
US Supreme Court

Five Great Lakes states are waiting to find out if the U.S. Supreme Court will hear their case calling for more decisive measures to keep Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes.

Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania filed the request this week.

The states want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to quickly wrap up its study of how to keep Asian carp from escaping the Mississippi River system through Chicago-area shipping canals. The corps is one of the main agencies responsible for the locks.

John Sellek is the spokesman for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

“What we really want is to have the Army Corps of Engineers speed up their study,” said Sellek.

“They are taking up to five years or longer to look at this and every minute that goes by could be another fish that’s getting through those canals in Chicago, so what we’re requesting is they speed that up to 18 months at the longest.”

The Great Lakes states also want the high court to order the corps to string nets across smaller waterways that could be escape points for the carp.

At the same time, Michigan and 17 states along the Great Lakes or the Mississippi want a total physical separation of the water systems.

Transportation
6:01 pm
Wed October 26, 2011

Snyder says he'll continue to push for international bridge

Owners of the Ambassador Bridge have been spending millions of dollars fighting a proposed second bridge connecting Detroit and Canada.
Mike Russell wikimedia commons

Governor Rick Snyder said the state needs to invest more money in its roads and bridges, and he said he’ll continue to push for a new, publicly owned bridge linking Detroit and Canada.

Snyder made the remarks in a special message to the Legislature today.

He said a new international bridge will help create jobs and more markets for Michigan products.

“We’ve had some setbacks, but again, following my philosophy of relentless positive action we are going to stay relentless because I believe it’s in the best interest of all our citizens… You couldn’t find a better partner in the world than to partner with our neighbors in Canada and build a bridge,” said Snyder.

Governor Snyder wants lawmakers to find nearly $1.5 billion in additional revenue to help pay for road and bridge repairs and maintenance.  He says one way to fund that would be to eliminate the 15-cent fuel tax at the pump in exchange for a wholesale gasoline tax.

Politics
5:39 pm
Wed October 26, 2011

Proposal would allow motorcyclists to ride without a helmet in Michigan

user ivandub Flickr

A state House committee has approved a measure that would allow motorcyclists 21 years and older with at least two years of experience to ride without a helmet.

This is the newest compromise that opponents of the helmet law hope will win the support of Governor Rick Snyder.

The measure to repeal the four-decade-old helmet law now goes to the floor of the state House for a vote.

Republican state Representative Peter Petallia (R-Presque Isle)is the sponsor.

He says Michigan is the only state in the Midwest that does not allow motorcycle riders to remove their helmets.

“If Michigan did not have a helmet law, so you think we would enact a helmet law? My answer would be ‘no'," said Petallia.

Governor Snyder has said he will not support a helmet law repeal without assurances the costs of medical care for injured riders won’t be passed along to taxpayers or insurance rate payers.

The Petallia bill requires riders who want to doff their helmets to carry an additional $20,000 in medical coverage.

Opponents of the repeal say that would not cover a week of intensive care.

Politics
5:17 pm
Wed October 26, 2011

State workers reach tentative contract deal

Governor Rick Snyder’s administration has reached a deal with unions representing 35,000 state employees on a two-year contract beginning next year. Last week, both sides declared their negotiations were deadlocked.

The agreement averts arbitration hearings that were to begin Monday. Details on compensation, benefits and work rules are not being made public pending union ratification votes. But the tentative agreement does include some employee concessions, while the Snyder administration has agreed to examine manager-to-staff ratios and the cost of outside service contracts for possible ways to save money.

The contract will take effect in October of 2012.

The state unilaterally resolved a deadlock to come up with $265 million in savings in the current fiscal year by imposing four unpaid furlough days, and not filling 367 vacancies. About 2,000 corrections employees will also lose their jobs as the state closes a prison in Detroit.

Politics
4:36 pm
Tue October 25, 2011

Governor Snyder to speak on improving Michigan infrastructure

user ardee4 Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder will deliver an address in Southfield tomorrow on improving roads and other infrastructure.

Geralyn Lasher is the governor’s communications director. She said the address will touch on a wide variety of topics that are critical to improving the state’s economy and protecting public health.

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Politics
6:11 pm
Fri October 21, 2011

Michigan's public defense system under review

Brian Turner Flickr

A state commission has begun work to ensure that everyone who is accused of a crime in Michigan gets an adequate legal defense.

Michigan allows every county to handle its own public defender system.

The system is frequently cited as one of the worst in the country.

That’s because some counties do a good job of ensuring that even people who cannot pay get a good lawyer. Other counties are more haphazard.

There are also no training standards for public defenders.

Retired Judge James Fischer chairs the commission.

“I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that there are no problems with the system, that it’s working perfectly fine for everyone. I’m pretty certain that’s not going to be anyone’s position," said Fischer.

The commission’s first step was to approve a set of questions for every county to answer on how it assigns and pays public defenders.

One of the common complaints is that public defenders must take on too many cases to earn a living.

Peter Cunningham is with the Michigan Campaign for Justice.

We need to come up with an improved system for public defense in Michigan. There needs to be more accountability – a statewide structure for holding counties accountable for how public defense is delivered, if not a statewide system,” said Cunningham.

Governor Rick Snyder gave the commission until July of next year to come up with a set of recommendations – including a way to pay for a better public defender system.

Politics
11:41 pm
Thu October 20, 2011

Bridge proposal dies in Michigan legislature, Snyder considers other options

Owners of the Ambassador Bridge have been spending millions of dollars fighting a proposal to build a second international bridge downriver.
Thomas Hawk Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder’s administration is looking how it might move forward construction of a new international bridge connecting Detroit and Canada without the approval of the Legislature.

A measure necessary to project died today (Thursday) in a state Senate committee, and Republican leaders say it appears the bridge project cannot win legislative approval.

But the new Detroit bridge remains central to Snyder’s long-term plans to make Michigan a Chicago-to-Montreal transportation corridor. Geralyn Lasher is the governor’s spokeswoman. She said the administration is considering its options.

"We have to look at it all, and we will look at it all very closely now because –very disappointed about today. It’s too important to jobs, it’s too important for Michigan. It’s too important to really say goodbye to this kind of money that we can leverage to all parts of our state to fix roads, to fix bridges, and to move forward," said Lasher.

The bridge was also going to be used to leverage millions of dollars in federal road and bridge money for projects across the state.

Lasher says there is a lot of misinformation being spread about the project.

An independent watchdog group called ads being aired statewide by bridge opponents “flagrantly” false.

Politics
8:25 am
Thu October 20, 2011

Court rejects AG attempt to end partner benefits

A court has thrown out a lawsuit by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. Schuette wanted to block a new policy that allows unmarried state workers to put live-in partners on their insurance plans.

The attorney general went to court after attempts by Governor Rick Snyder and Republicans in the Legislature failed to halt the new benefits for unmarried live-in partners  - which includes people in same-sex relationships.

The independent state Civil Service Commission earlier this year approved contracts with state employees that allow live-in partner benefits. The court said the commission acted within the scope of its authority when it approved the contracts. But it’s not settled that state employees will be able to continue to list domestic partners and their children as dependents on their benefits plan. The attorney general could appeal the court ruling.

A state Senate committee has also approved legislation that would ban public employers - such as the state, school districts and universities - from offering contracts that allow unmarried partner benefits.

Politics
4:38 pm
Wed October 19, 2011

First vote on new international bridge could come Thursday

The Ambassador Bridge
user cseeman flickr

State lawmakers today were supposed to move forward with a proposal to build a new international bridge in Detroit.  Instead, the meeting broke up without a vote.

A meeting of the Senate Economic Development Committee was abruptly adjourned after a new version of the legislation was handed to the committee’s Republican chairman. Senator Mike Kowall said he needed time to review the new legislation, but he expressed annoyance that months of hearings were capped by the last-minute development.

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Politics
7:36 pm
Tue October 18, 2011

Governor Snyder says it's too early to think about spending Michigan's potential surplus

The state of Michigan has a projected budget surplus of around $430 million. Governor Snyder wants to wait before deciding what to do with the extra money.
Russ Climie Tiberius Images

Governor Rick Snyder says he would prefer to wait and see what direction the economy takes before making decisions on how to use a projected budget surplus.

Snyder says he is no rush to restore funding to schools or other programs.

Budget watchdogs predict the state is in line for a windfall of around $430 million once the books are closed on the fiscal year that ended last month.

Tax revenues appear to have picked up despite the lackluster recovery in jobs and spending.

Democrats have called for restoring cuts to K-12 education, but Governor Snyder said it’s too soon to make that call.

“It’s good to see positive results coming in in terms of revenues, but one of the things is the economy in the macro sense at the national and international level is pretty tenuous,” said Snyder.

Other Republican leaders have said any surplus should be put into the state’s “rainy day” savings or toward paying down long-term debt.

The governor says those options might be prudent if the state winds up with excess cash.

courts
5:10 pm
Thu October 13, 2011

Snyder orders review of indigent defense

Joe Gratz flickr

Governor Rick Snyder has ordered a review of how Michigan ensures that people charged with crimes are properly represented in court – even when they cannot afford to pay an attorney.

The state's criminal justice system is often ranked among the worst in the country because it does not guarantee poor people get a proper defense. It's long been criticized for a patchwork of standards where every county pays for and handles its own indigent defense system. Too often, court-appointed defense attorneys are poorly trained, inexperienced, and too overworked to do a good job of representing their clients, says Shelli Weisberg of the American Civil Liberties Union:

“It depends on what county you live in as to whether you’re going to get good representation if you’re in the criminal justice system, and that’s just not fair.”

Weisberg says that means there are people in jail and prison who should not be and, in some cases, people who committed crimes remain free.

The ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against the state four years ago. The ACLU wants a judge to declare Michigan is violating the state and federal constitutions by denying defendants adequate legal counsel.

Politics
4:41 pm
Wed October 12, 2011

Michigan Secretary of State outlines new election proposals

Michigan Secretary of State outlined new election proposals today.
Flickr

Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said Michigan should allow anyone to vote by absentee ballot without having to give a reason why they cannot make it to a polling place on Election Day.

It’s one of several election proposals she outlined today.

They also include cleaning voter rolls of dead people, those who have moved, and non-citizens. 

Johnson said people should be allowed to cast absentee ballots without giving a reason why they cannot show up at a polling place on Election Day.

She said people who vote absentee would face the same identity requirements as people who cast ballots on Election Day.

"We need the same level of security in our elections whether it's absentee or it's people who come to vote at the polls. Michigan is a state where you must show an ID, a photo ID, or sign an affidavit of identity. We would require the same standard for the no-reason absentee," said Johnson.

Chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party Mark Brewer says the Republican’s election plans provide less ballot access than what’s being done in other states.

 "Many other states, including those run by Republicans, on a bipartisan basis are adopting reforms like early voting. They’re letting people register to vote on Election Day. All these are designed to make and have made it much easier for people to vote," said Brewer.

Brewer also said voting by non-citizens is not a big problem because they would risk deportation.

He said the effort to stop non-citizens from voting plays to racial fears.

Johnson does not favor early voting or Election Day voter registration as methods to spur more voter participation.

She has called for a federal law to give her office access to immigration and Social Security records that would help clear non-citizens off the state’s voter list.

She said going forward the state will also require people to promise they are U.S. citizens before they can vote.

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