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
4:58 pm
Mon January 23, 2012

Lawsuit seeks Michigan auto injury claims data

user H.L.I.T/Flickr

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that the MCCA fee is $145 per driver. It is, in fact, $145 per insured vehicle. If you own, and insure, two cars, the fee would be $290.

 

A coalition of trial lawyers, unions and victim advocates is going to court seeking data on accidents and insurance payments.

Lawmakers who want to change Michigan’s no-fault insurance system say the current system is unsustainable. But fans of no-fault say the data will show the system is financially sound.

The problem is the information is held by an industry group that does not want to release the information. The group sets an annual assessment on drivers to pay the health care bills of the most-critically injured people.

“This knowledge is being hidden from us, from the Legislature, from the public," said George Sinas, a personal injury attorney who opposes plans to change no-fault. "We are deeply committed in this lawsuit in seeking an end, in seeking a lifting if you will of this shroud of secrecy.”  

Sinas says the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association should be forced to release the information because it was created by the Legislature, and because every driver has to pay the fee.

But the insurance industry disagrees.

"The MCCA is not a public body," said Pete Kuhnmuench, president if the Insurance Institute of Michigan, an industry association. "It’s not even a policymaking body. It’s a payment mechanism. It collects assessments from insurance companies and then it reimburses insurance companies for expenses they have relative to a private contract.”

Kuhnmuench says state insurance regulators make sure the MCCA assessment is fair and that consumers are protected. The MCCA assessment on every insured vehicle in Michigan is $145 this year.

Politics
6:56 am
Fri January 20, 2012

Snyder to address business leaders on 2012 plans

Photo courtesy of Governor Rick Snyder

Governor Rick Snyder will follow his State of the State address with another speech today to the state’s business leaders and immigration policy is expected to play a prominent role in his talk. 

Governor Snyder announced in his State of the State address that he’s forged an alliance with unions and businesses to lobby Congress to relax some immigration laws. Snyder wants to keep educated immigrants in the country. 

Mike Finney is the CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and one of the governor’s top advisors on business issues. He says right now immigration rules force out many potential entrepreneurs after they earn advanced degrees from Michigan colleges and universities.

“It seems only logical that we would at least create opportunities for them to offer up that intellect to help grow businesses here in this country and, of course, in the state of Michigan.”

Finney says the governor also wants to improve efforts to match workers with the skills they need to land a good job.

State of the State 2012
6:19 am
Thu January 19, 2012

Snyder's State of the State focuses on unfinished tasks

thetoad flickr

Governor Rick Snyder used his 2012 State of the State speech last night to strike an optimistic tone about Michigan’s future, and to refocus attention on what he says is unfinished business from last year.

In his second State of the State address, Governor Snyder got to start off with some good news – Michigan’s unemployment rate fell in the final month of 2011 to the lowest it’s been in over three years.

“Unemployment in the last 12 months has dropped from 11.1 percent to 9.3percent," the Governor said to applause.

And Snyder says that’s evidence his strategy of “relentless positive action” – he used his trademark phrase twice in the speech – is working.

Now a fair amount of that drop is because so many people have quit looking for jobs that they’ve dropped out of the workforce. Adding those people, as well as those who are working part-time but wishing for full-time jobs puts Michigan’s rate of unemployment and under-employment closer to 19 percent.

But, despite lingering challenges, the governor says things are moving in the right direction: Michigan’s finances are looking up, and he says 2012 should be a time to build on the successes of 2011.

“We are on that path. We’re getting it right. We are getting it done.”

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Politics
5:31 pm
Tue January 17, 2012

Legislation to get tough on unions has labor crying foul

A package of Republican bills in the state Legislature would boost penalties for public workers who go on strike. The legislation would also let employers sue striking workers who get in the way of their businesses, and make it more complicated for unions to get dues deducted from employee paychecks.

The state House Oversight, Reform, and Ethics Committee opened hearings on the package today. 

“It’s just to give clarity," said Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Auburn Hills), who chairs the committee. "Strikes that are illegal are really illegal. We’ve seen people try to get to the gray areas and we’re trying to reduce the gray and make it as black and white as we can.”

Union leaders say it’s been years since there’s been any kind of public employee strike in Michigan, and they say the measures are really just meant to harass unions.

“It’s not enough to draw and quarter somebody; You also have to waterboard them and, besides that, shoot them through the heart," said Mary Ellen Gurwitz, an attorney with the Michigan AFL-CIO. 

Hearings on the bills are expected to continue next week.

State of the State 2012
6:43 am
Mon January 16, 2012

Snyder prepares for second State of the State address

Governor Snyder delivering his first State of the State address, January 2011
gophouse.gov

Governor Rick Snyder will outline his plans for 2012 later this week when he delivers his second State of the State address.

Last year, Governor Snyder won legislative approval of a lot of new initiatives – a tax overhaul; toughening the state’s local emergency manager law; and ending the requirement that stores put a price tag on every retail item.

Other efforts, such as a new international bridge in Detroit, stalled in the face of Republican opposition.

The governor says his State of the State speech will be a frank accounting of his first year, but will also reflect his optimistic approach to governing.

The former CEO intends to focus more this year on implementing policies and his plans for managing the executive branch than putting new initiatives before the Legislature.

The governor says he will continue to push to make Michigan more business-friendly.

Michigan Radio will have live, special coverage of the Governor's second State of the State address beginning Wednesday evening at 7 p.m.

Auto/Economy
12:55 pm
Fri January 13, 2012

Economic forecasters see some growth, if sluggish, for Michigan in 2012

Economic forecasters are telling state officials that 2011 was a pretty good year for economic growth and job gains. They expect that will continue into 2012 and beyond –just at a slower pace.

University of Michigan economist George Fulton said the unemployment rate should drop below 10 percent this year. He projects Michigan will see a gain of 26,000 jobs in 2012 compared to about 64,000 in 2011.

Fulton said that’s because auto sales are expected to slow down in 2012, and consumers remain cautious about spending.

“Unemployment – we see that slowly drifting down over time," said Fulton. "I think that’s one of the issues in this state because the rates, even though they are coming down are still too high.”

Fulton was one of the presenters at a conference today at the state Capitol. Budget officials use the forecast to determine how much revenue the state can anticipate as they put together a spending plan.

Politics
6:23 pm
Tue January 10, 2012

Snyder: Right to Work the wrong issue for Michigan now

Gov. Rick Snyder tours the Detroit auto show.
Rick Pluta Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder today  renewed his opposition to the Legislature taking up a controversial right-to-work measure. The governor says the issue would divide the state when it should be focused on an economic recovery. Snyder made the remarks during a tour of the Detroit auto show.

Snyder says the experience in other Midwestern states shows a fierce political fight could consume the Legislature’s attention and sideline other issues.

“And to get into a very divisive debate like that, you create an environment where not much gets done and I would point to Wisconsin, I’d point to Ohio. If you look at Indiana, that’s kind of consuming all the dialogue in that state," he said.

The governor is preparing to outline his priorities for 2012 in his second State of the State address to be delivered next week.

Republican lawmakers are expected to roll out a measure soon that would outlaw mandatory union membership as a condition of employment. A spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger said an honest dialogue and debate does not have to be divisive.

Politics
7:02 am
Tue January 10, 2012

Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow says feds should offer more help to farmers

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
USDA.gov

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow addressed agribusiness leaders yesterday at a conference in Lansing. Stabenow chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee and is getting ready to start negotiations on the 2012 farm bill.

She said the rest of the economy benefits when farms and agribusinesses prosper.

“We know it’s one out of four jobs – that still surprises people when I say that, both in Michigan and around the country – one out of four jobs and over $71 billion in economic activity just in Michigan,” said Stabenow.

Stabenow said she wants to shore up federal support for agricultural research in areas such as bio-fuels. And she said farmers could use some federal help in managing the risk of losses due to weather and price volatility.

Stabenow is a Democrat who is expected to seek reelection in November.

Military
5:48 pm
Thu January 5, 2012

Michigan National Guard soldiers to train military in Liberia

Twenty-five members of the Michigan National Guard are off to west Africa to  help train Liberia’s fledgling military force. The nation was established in 1822 by freed U-S slaves. It is now recovering from many years of civil war.

Captain Corissa Barton is with the Michigan Guard. She said the project is a welcome change from the Guard’s normal deployments in recent years.

“This just is not, especially in the last 10 years, not our typical mission. We’re used to going to Iraq and Afghanistan, so being able to do something like this - that’s a little bit different, the troops get excited about it,” said Barton.

The Michigan Guard was assigned Liberia as a partner by the U.S. military as part of a project to establish closer ties with emerging national governments.

The Michigan team is expected to spend a year in Liberia. Its members come from units all across Michigan.

Politics
5:06 pm
Wed January 4, 2012

Supporters say Indiana debate builds pressure to approve “right-to-work” in Michigan

A button from the "Right to Work" campaign of the 1970s. An entirely different campaign from the one being organized today.
Danny Birchall Flickr

People who want to end compulsory union membership in Michigan are closely watching Indiana. Debate began in that state’s Capitol today to make Indiana the first “right-to-work” state in the industrial Midwest.

The legislation would ban the requirement that workers pay union dues as a condition of holding a job.

Michigan “right-to-work” supporters say the Indiana debate boosts their cause in a state where Republican Governor Rick Snyder has said the issue is too divisive to tackle.

State Representative Mike Shirkey disagrees with Snyder and plans to introduce a “right-to-work” bill in the Michigan Legislature.

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Politics
6:11 pm
Thu December 29, 2011

Lawmakers look to regulate trash burning

Michael C. Rael flickr

The state Legislature could enact new restrictions soon on the types of household waste that can be burned in barrels and pits.

Household waste now includes a lot more toxic materials – such as computer parts, rubber, plastic, and treated wood. A rule proposed last year would have banned outdoor burning in communities that don’t have local trash-burning ordinances.

Critics say that goes too far – especially in small towns and rural areas, where people have long burned their trash in burn barrels.

“They have to have the ability to burn their trash and dispose of it properly and that’s what we’ve done for years and years,” said Kenneth Kurtz (R-Coldwater).

The legislation would ban materials including rubber, plastic, and treated wood. Environmental groups don’t think that goes far enough.

“Burning is unnecessary. Burning is a bad idea,” said Hugh McDiarmid of the Michigan Environmental Council. “We acknowledge that it’s a practice that’s gone on, that’s been very convenient for people for a long time, so we welcome the step in the right direction this legislation is and hope that it can be stronger in the future.”

McDiarmid says improved recycling programs would be a better alternative to burning trash.

Politics
6:00 am
Thu December 29, 2011

New rules could be in store for lake access at road ends

Bernt_Rostad flickr

Some state lawmakers hope to settle a decades-old controversy over how people use public access points to inland lakes.

In some places, it’s an annual tradition for people to set up a neighborhood dock at a road end access point. But some lakefront property owners complain about people and boats crowding the road ends. Often, the arguments wind up in court.

“Our water resources need to be open and accessible to the people, but on the other hand, we have to ensure that the rights of waterfront owners are protected, too,” said Hugh McDiarmid of the Michigan Environmental Council.  “So I don’t think the legislation will end the dispute, but it might provide the framework to resolve disputes a little more easily.”        

A bill before the state Senate would make it a misdemeanor to install a dock or permanently tie a watercraft unless a local ordinance allows it. The law would allow fines of 500 dollars a day for violations.

“It’s always good to know what’s expected there and what you can and cannot do,” said Kent Wood of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. “The more that you can clarify exactly what activities are allowed and what’s not allowed, that could go a long way in clearing up a lot of these issues.”     

Wood says his group wants to make sure any new law helps doesn’t make it harder for people to access lakes.

Politics
6:06 pm
Tue December 27, 2011

Lawmakers say they'll continue push for physician training

Backers of state funding for physician training say Michigan faces a shortage of 20,000 doctors in the next decade.
user Laura4Smith Flickr

Some state lawmakers say they have not given up on efforts to restore money in the state budget for training medical residents at Michigan hospitals.

The Legislature dropped $9 million in medical training funds from an end-of-the-year budget bill before adjourning for the year.

But Republican state Senator Roger Kahn says he will make a renewed effort to fund the program in 2012. Kahn is a also doctor and chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. Kahn says the funding helps keep doctors in Michigan, which faces a physician shortage.

"We’ve got to have a new generation of physicians and those physicians, when they’re trained here, have a much-higher likelihood of staying here in Michigan and becoming Michigan physicians," he said

The most recent annual survey of physicians conducted by the state Department of Community Health found 60 percent of doctors stay and practice close to the hospitals where they trained as residents.

Cyber schools
2:15 pm
Tue December 27, 2011

GOP lawmakers want more cyber schools in Michigan

Erik Hersman Flickr

There may soon be more online schools allowed to operate in Michigan.

Republican leaders in the Legislature say they want to allow more so-called cyber schools for K-through-12.

State Representative Tom McMillin chairs the House Education Committee. He says many lawmakers are impressed with the ability of cyber schools to help kids who struggle in traditional public schools, or drop out.

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Politics
10:11 am
Mon December 26, 2011

"Likely" drug-using welfare applicants could be drug-tested

The state Department of Human Services is developing a policy to screen for drug use among applicants for cash assistance welfare benefits, and to drug-test those deemed likely to be substance abusers.

DHS officials say they want the new policy to be part of an overhaul of the state’s welfare-to-work program in the spring of next year.  The department submitted a report with its recommendations to the Legislature earlier this month.

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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.

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