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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

The week after Memorial Day is when Michigan’s political and business leaders pack up and head north to Mackinac Island for the annual Detroit Regional Chamber Policy Conference.

Mackinac is a major political event where political fundraisers are as ubiquitous as horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and complimentary cocktails.

Local governments say the "dark store" approach to valuing big-box stores has cost them dearly.
Daniel Incandela / flickr http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Local governments are cheering a state Court of Appeals decision that could mean millions of dollars in property taxes. Big box retailers like Lowes, Menards, and Meijer have successfully argued that assessors should look at vacant stores to determine their value. The strategy has led to dramatically lower taxes. 

Critics say it’s a tax dodge that’s not fair to other taxpayers who have to pay more in fees and tax millages.

A panhandler.
C Tanti / flickr http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

A state House committee could vote tomorrow on a bill to create a crime of “aggressive panhandling.” The legislation would forbid begging for money near banks and ATMs. It would also forbid threatening or offensive language and gestures. And it would require a panhandler to stop asking if someone communicates it’s not welcome.

State Rep. Mike McCready, R-Bloomfield Hills, sponsored the bill. He says the goal is rein in the growing number of panhandlers.

Help wanted sign
flickr http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Michigan’s monthly jobless rate remains unchanged at 4.8%. There was an increase in hiring, but that was accompanied by roughly the same number of people joining the workforce.

Governor Rick Snyder says the steady jobless rate is good news because it shows more people are optimistic about finding work.

“It means people are staying here, people are coming back into the workforce. So when you look at an unemployment number staying steady, if the reason it stayed steady is because you’re increasing your workforce and those people are finding work, that’s a good answer.”  

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

It’s official. Governor Rick Snyder and the Legislature have less money to work with than it appeared earlier in the year. Drops in corporate and sales tax revenues mean a budget hit of about $150 million in this fiscal year. The forecast also projects a $160 million drop for the coming fiscal year budget the governor and the Legislature are putting together right now.

John Roberts, Snyder’s budget director, says the administration will look for targeted spending cuts to meet the shortfall. And he thinks it can be done without jeopardizing money to address the Flint water crisis and the looming financial collapse of the Detroit Public Schools.

Gov. Snyder delivers his opening statement in the congressional hearing.
YouTube - screenshot

Governor Rick Snyder now says it’s possible he deleted some e-mails related to Flint, even though he earlier told a congressional committee that he had not. The governor still insists it’s unlikely he deleted any Flint-related e-mails, it’s just not impossible.

Donald Trump is now the presumptive GOP presidential nominee so, what does that portend for Republicans further down the ballot?

For Donald Trump to win the presidency, he’ll have to change the Electoral College map to win states Republicans don’t usually win. And, based on Trump’s apparent appeal to blue collar voters in old Rust Belt states, Michigan is high on that list.

Michigan Republican Congresswoman Candice Miller endorsed Trump last week.

flickr user Eljoja / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

There could be a legal showdown looming between state elections officials and the ballot campaign to legalize marijuana.

The MI Legalize campaign wants the state to count signatures that are more than 180 days old. Right now, those signatures are presumed to be outdated and invalid unless the campaign can prove the signer is still a registered voter. But that’s very hard to do without access to the state’s electronic voter database. It requires getting an affidavit from every voter, or looking at records kept by local clerks.

Derek Key / flickr http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

A federal appeals court says Michigan is not complying with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down prison sentences of automatic life without parole for juveniles.

The Supreme Court ruled four years ago that the practice amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Attorney Deborah LaBelle says the state is still not allowing juvenile lifers a meaningful chance at parole.

Flint River and water plant
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The legislative committee looking into the Flint water crisis is done with hearings and is going to work on a set of recommendations. The hearings wrapped up without appearances by Gov. Rick Snyder, senior aides, or former emergency managers.

Democratic State Rep. Jeff Irwin says they should have been called to testify.

"I think for this committee to have credibility, we needed to hear from the governor, we needed to hear from the emergency managers, we needed to hear from the people who were central to this crisis, and we haven’t,” Irwin said.

american flag and lgbt flag
Flickr user Praveen / flickr http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The Michigan State Board of Education holds its final public session Tuesday on controversial guidelines to help schools come up with plans to deal with gay and transgender students.

If adopted, the voluntary guidelines for schools cover allowing students to choose how they are gender-identified, which bathrooms they can use, and what their names and pronouns are.

Board President John Austin says LGBT kids are more likely to skip school, struggle academically, and attempt suicide than other students. He says that’s a reality schools have to address. 

There is no agreement at the state Capitol about how to fix Detroit’s schools and time is growing short as the possibility of a default looms. But, it’s not Republicans versus Democrats on this one. This is a showdown between Republicans.

Michigan state Capitol
User: mattileo / flickr http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

A set of Republican-sponsored bills to fund and overhaul the Detroit Public Schools is being met with skepticism in the state Senate. The state House adopted the legislation in a marathon session that lasted until early this morning.

Dohn Hoyle, the director of public policy of The Arc: "There's not been anything that we've seen ... that leads us to believe that the governor's original [mental health funding] plan makes any sense."
Matthileo/Flickr / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

This week's Detroit teacher sickout protests have renewed pressure on state lawmakers to lead the struggling Detroit Public Schools out of its financial hole.

GOP lawmakers in the House expressed frustration with the labor stoppage, which started after teachers were informed the district might not be able to cover their paychecks after June 30.

The House plan would allocate $500 million to help the school district pay off its debts. It would also erode the power of the teachers’ union.

President Obama is planning to fly into Flint later this week to check in on the response to the city’s drinking water crisis and Governor Rick Snyder doesn’t plan to follow along on the presidential visit.

So, the question becomes: can the governor of Michigan really altogether snub the president of the United States?

Snyder has certainly tried to lay an equal share of the blame for what went wrong in Flint on problems caused by the federal government and its layers of bureaucracy.

time card
M Sullivan / Flickr https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode

Supporters of requiring employers to offer paid sick leave to their workers were at the state Capitol lobbying lawmakers to adopt a bill if and when it’s presented to them.

A petition campaign is gathering signatures to put the question to the Legislature, or on the November ballot. 

Danielle Atkinson is an organizer of the campaign. She says a lot of workers have a stake in the outcome.

“Over 40 percent of the (privately employed) Michigan workforce doesn’t have a single hour of earned sick time,” she said.  

Flint River and water plant
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The state’s health director says an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Genesee County did not get the attention it deserved from his agency. He says it was partially due to the department’s focus on a different health threat that never materialized.

Governor Snyder left for Europe this weekend in a quest for jobs and economic investment for Michigan but he’s also heading overseas in an effort to reclaim the two and half years he has left in office.

Since January, Snyder has basically been the governor of Flint (not that Flint residents are too happy about that).

A taxpayer-financed prison from the tough-on-crime era is back in the news. The Northlake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan has been a conundrum for taxpayers since it was opened in 1999 (amid more than a little controversy).

Gov. Rick Snyder said in a press release: "Heidi [Grether] has decades of experience in environmental quality issues, and has effectively served during times of crises and recovery."
Michigan Radio

Democrats in the Legislature say they’ll try to stop the state from spending taxpayer dollars on Governor Rick Snyder’s criminal defense team.

State Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, says the state is responsible for defending the governor against civil lawsuits. But he says the governor should pick up the costs of his own criminal 

“You know, I would suggest the governor do what other elected officials have done and create his own legal defense fund, which the law allows for, and do it that way, and not use our taxpayer dollars for criminal defense lawyers.”

Kevin Rosseel / morguefile

Two prisons would close under a plan adopted today by a state Senate budget subcommittee.

The budget proposal does not specify which prisons would be closed. That would be up to the Department of Corrections.

The proposal also calls for the state to lease a privately owned prison in the northern Michigan town of Baldwin that’s currently used to house out-of-state inmates. The move is a response to a decline in the number of prison inmates.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Michigan health and environmental department chiefs were in Washington today  to explain the state’s response to the Flint water crisis to members of Congress.

Nick Lyons directs the state Department of Health and Human Services. He said it’s plain the state should have done more sooner.

“I know the people of Flint are hurt,” he said. “They are upset. I know there is anger and mistrust. Rightfully so.”

But state and federal officials say they can’t predict how long it will take before the water is drinkable without being filtered.

steve carmody / Michigan Radio

Michigan Republicans are meeting in Lansing this weekend to select delegates to the party’s presidential-nominating convention this summer in Cleveland.

The delegates are divided between billionaire Donald Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Ohio Governor John Kasich.

There was concern about schemes to recruit shadow delegates who would not represent their declared candidates’ interests beyond voting for them on a first ballot in a deadlocked convention.

“We’re taking the Ronald Reagan strategy – trust but verify,” says Scott Hagerstrom, Trump’s Michigan director.

Michigan Supreme Court
photo courtesy of the MI Supreme Court

The Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could set some parameters on state-appointed emergency managers’ authority to change public employee contracts.

Back in 2012, the city of Pontiac was broke, and under the control of an emergency manager. The city missed a promised $3.5 million payment to a union-run police and fire retirees’ health insurance fund. So the emergency manager issued an executive order skipping the payment after the fact – as well as future payments.

The barge in the middle of the Straits of Mackinac.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The state of Michigan is extending the deadline for bids to study an oil and gas pipeline that runs along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. The pipeline is known as Enbridge Line 5. 

The study will include a risk analysis of the 60-year-old pipeline, and alternatives to shipping oil and gas beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

“The key is, how do we reduce that risk?" said James Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council. "How do we protect the lakes?”

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

The state has a $75 million federal grant to help people struggling with their home loans. But it will use the lion’s share of it to tear down abandoned structures in Detroit and 

Kevin Elsenheimer is the director of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. He says that should improve the quality of life and property values in those cities. Elsenheimer says this money is mostly going to Detroit and Flint because they have the most abandoned 

As if their relationship wasn’t complicated enough already, now Flint Mayor Karen Weaver is threatening to take Governor Rick Snyder and the state of Michigan to court.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver (right) stands next to the lead drinking water line that was pulled from a home in Flint.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Flint’s mayor has notified the state a lawsuit is in the works over the city’s water crisis. The notice of intent to sue names the state of Michigan, the state Department of Environmental Quality, and four DEQ water officials.

Ari Adler is Governor Rick Snyder’s communications director. He says if the lawsuit is filed, that would complicate discussions between the state and the city.

State Senator Virgil Smith, D-Detroit.
senatedems.com

State Senator Virgil Smith has turned in his resignation and averted an expulsion drama. The Detroit Democrat turned in a one-sentence letter this afternoon (Thursday) quitting the seat.

 

flickr user Joe Gratz / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

A group challenging Michigan’s emergency manager law is asking a federal appeals court in Cincinnati to order a trial in the case.

A federal judge in Detroit threw out most of the lawsuit. But attorney John Philo of the not-for-profit Sugar Law Center says the emergency manager law raised new issues that courts have never decided.

“The power to make laws is reserved to elected officials. That’s what our democracy is   founded upon,” Philo said.

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