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
3:53 pm
Wed December 14, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jobs
2:43 pm
Wed December 14, 2011

Michigan's unemployment rate falls to 9.8 percent in November

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

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

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

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

Politics
5:52 pm
Tue December 13, 2011

Health exchange debate will continue in New Year

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

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

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

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

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

Politics
5:40 pm
Tue December 13, 2011

GOP lawmakers nix move for Detroit bailout

Bernt Rostad flickr

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

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

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

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

Politics
1:26 pm
Tue December 13, 2011

Setting up a Michigan health care exchange, legislators delay debate

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

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

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

State Legislature
6:25 am
Mon December 12, 2011

Michigan Lawmakers expect home heating deal before winter break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The law
8:27 am
Sun December 11, 2011

Supreme Court won't change child sex-abuse conviction

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

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

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

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

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

Courts
1:26 pm
Thu December 8, 2011

Michigan Supreme Court to hear case on MSU harrassment policy

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

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

The employee felt threatened and called the campus police.

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

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

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

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

Politics
11:29 am
Thu December 8, 2011

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

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

The measure was adopted yesterday by the state Senate.

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

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

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

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

Politics
11:20 am
Thu December 8, 2011

Court will hear exchange student discrimination case

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

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

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

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

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

Politics
3:38 pm
Wed December 7, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bill would also reduce the number of county commissioners.

Republicans say the bill is designed to save taxpayers money.

Politics
4:58 pm
Tue December 6, 2011

Michigan lawmakers search for ways to keep poor residents warm

user dominic's pics / Flickr

At the state Capitol, the debate continues over how to ensure there’s money available to help thousands of low-income families that need help paying their heating bills this winter. The need for a solution is becoming more urgent as temperatures start to dip below freezing, and the Legislature is a week away from starting its winter break.

Senator Mike Nofs chairs the Senate Energy and Technology Committee. He said a solution will be in place before the Legislature begins its holiday break next week.

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Politics
4:20 pm
Tue December 6, 2011

Michigan Governor Snyder signs anti-bullying legislation

Update 4:20 p.m.

The Governor's Office sent this press release after Governor Snyder signed the anti-bullying bill:

Michigan will become the 48th state to require schools to develop and enforce policies to protect students from harassment, intimidation and physical violence under anti-bullying legislation signed by Gov. Rick Snyder today.

The governor called on lawmakers to pass the legislation as part of the education reform plan he proposed in April, saying students need to feel safe in the classroom so they can focus on learning.

“This legislation sends a clear message that bullying is wrong in all its forms and will not be tolerated,” Snyder said. “No child should feel intimidated or afraid to come to school.”

The governor said having a clear policy in place will give teachers and administrators the tools they need to deal with bullies, but he added that parents can help by ensuring their own children do not engage in or encourage others to bully.

House Bill 4163, sponsored by state Rep. Phil Potvin, is known as “Matt’s Safe School Law” in honor of Matt Epling, a Michigan teen who ended his life in 2002 after enduring severe bullying.  The legislation gives schools six months to develop clear anti-bullying policies so they will be in place by the start of the 2012-2013 school year.  The bill is now Public Act 241 of 2011.

A detailed description of the bill’s requirements may be found online at www.legislature.mi.gov.

3:50 p.m.

Governor Rick Snyder has signed the law that requires schools to adopt anti-bullying policies. Family members of children who committed suicide looked on as the governor signed the measure. Until today, Michigan was one of three states that did not have an anti-bullying law.

Courts
4:31 pm
Mon December 5, 2011

Computer glitch leads to challenge before Michigan Supreme Court

Joe Gratz / flickr

The Michigan Supreme Court will hear a case tomorrow where an African-American man claims he was denied a fair trial because of a computer error. The error caused fewer jury notices to go to households in African-American neighborhoods.  

Ramon Bryant is challenging his convictions on charges of criminal sexual conduct, stealing $90, and possession of marijuana. Bryant says he was denied a trial before a jury of his peers that is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

The question is whether the unintentional exclusion of African-Americans from the jury pool entitles Bryant to a new trial with a new jury. A computer error caused fewer jury notices to be sent to ZIP codes in Kent County with higher minority populations.

Bradley Hall is with the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan. He says the law requires juries be a “fair cross-section” of the community.

"Excluding of a minority population from jury service does not create a fair and reasonable representation of the community," said Hall. “"So it sort of happened by happenstance but there's no question it's systematic."

The prosecutor argues the mistake was accidental, and that there are other explanations as to why so few African Americans reported for jury duty.

Michigan's Attorney General says Bryant's conviction should stand. The AG's office contends the jury chosen made its decision based on the evidence.

Politics
5:10 pm
Fri December 2, 2011

Michigan legal activists push for improved indigent defense

Ken Mayer flickr

A state commission heard testimony today that inadequate legal representation for poor defendants results in wrongful convictions and unfair sentences. Commissioners were also told that failing to invest in indigent defense costs taxpayers money.

Peter Cunningham is with the Michigan Campaign for Justice. He said the poor economy is no excuse for failing to fix the system.

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courts
5:21 pm
Wed November 30, 2011

Court upholds parole, over sentencing judge's objections

s_falkow flickr

The state Court of Appeals has upheld the parole of a convicted murderer over the objections of the judge who sent him to prison. 

Phillip Paquette was convicted of stabbing a man to death at a party in the summer of 1994. Paquette maintains to this day he is innocent and acted in self defense. While in prison, Paquette committed a string of infractions, but the pattern of misconduct ended in 2004.

Paquette became eligible for parole last year, and the Michigan Parole Board granted his request to be released.

The judge that sentenced Paquette objected, citing Paquette’s record of misconduct and insistence that he’s innocent. 

Paquette took his case all the way to the state Supreme Court – which returned the case to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals noted Paquette went six years without a violation, and has expressed sorrow for the killing. The appeals court reversed the judge and said Paquette is to be paroled.

Politics
5:03 pm
Wed November 30, 2011

Governor Snyder to outline Michigan workforce training plans

Gov. Rick Snyder
Tiberius Images / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder will deliver his fifth special message of the year tomorrow at Delta College near Saginaw, where he is expected to outline a strategy to better match the skills workers have to positions that are available right now.

The governor is looking for ways to bring down Michigan’s persistently high unemployment rate.

More than one in 10 working-age people in Michigan are out of work and actively seeking jobs. Governor Snyder says one big problem is too few people with skills that match positions that are available in fields like welding and software design.

Sara Wurfel is the governor’s press secretary, and she says the governor believes employers will respond if workers pick up new, in-demand skills. 

“(The governor) believes the number one most-important recourse Michigan has is its talent, its people, and the skills and the background that they bring.”

The governor is expected to say the state and educators need to do a better job of identifying employment trends and the skills businesses will be looking for. Snyder’s predecessor, Governor Jennifer Granholm, also made job training a high priority.

Crime
10:47 am
Wed November 30, 2011

Convicted murderer to be released despite judge's objection

The state Court of Appeals has upheld the parole of a convicted murderer over the objections of the judge who sent him to prison.

Phillip Paquette was convicted of stabbing a man to death at a party in the summer of 1994. Paquette maintains to this day he is innocent and acted in self defense. While in prison, Paquette committed a string of infractions, but the pattern of misconduct ended in 2004.

Paquette became eligible for parole last year, and the Michigan Parole Board granted his request to be released.

The judge that sentenced Paquette objected, citing Paquette’s record of misconduct and insistence that he’s innocent. Paquette took his case all the way to the state Supreme Court, which returned the case to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals noted Paquette went six years without a violation, and has expressed sorrow for the killing.

The appeals court reversed the judge and said Paquette is to be paroled.

Politics
4:25 pm
Mon November 28, 2011

Michigan Governor Snyder could veto first bill this week

Governor Rick Snyder
Lindsey Smith Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder could veto his first bill this week. He faces a Friday morning deadline to sign or a reject measure sent to him by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The bill would make it difficult for state agencies to enact rules that are stricter than federal standards without first getting permission from the Legislature.

Sara Wurfel is the governor’s press secretary.

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Politics
10:33 am
Thu November 24, 2011

Michigan families will find out soon if they're cut from cash assistance

About a thousand Michigan families will find out on Monday or Tuesday whether they will be cut off of cash assistance welfare benefits for hitting a four-year cap.

The state Department of Human Services is holding two days of “rocket docket” hearings.

People challenging their cutoff are expected to show up first thing in the morning, and wait their turn to make their case to a magistrate and a caseworker.

They will be told before they leave whether they still qualify.

Gilda Jacobs directs the Michigan League for Human Services, which opposes the policy. 

“I guess it’s kind of letting people know right away to try to reduce their anxiety, but it’s going to be creating a lot more panic and anxiety if folks find out they’re going to reach that hard cap,” said Jacobs.

The director of the Department of Human Services says the “rocket docket” is meant to end drawn-out appeals.

 Unions are planning to stage protests at some DHS offices.

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