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

Pages

Politics
5:33 pm
Tue September 13, 2011

Snyder to focus on wellness, prevention in healthcare message

Bad eating habits can be hard to break, but the choices we make individually can end up costing society as a whole.
user ewan traveler Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder will ask Michiganders to quit smoking, lose weight and eat better in a health care message tomorrow that’s expected to focus on wellness and disease prevention.

The speech is expected to focus as much on identifying the problems as outlining solutions that won’t cost taxpayers a lot of money.

The Governor is expected to acknowledge there is not a whole lot government can do to make people live healthier lives.

Read more
Politics
4:58 pm
Tue September 13, 2011

Snyder to outline health plan

Governor Rick Snyder will deliver a health reform message tomorrow. He’s expected to ask Michiganders to take control of their health by exercising and eating better, and to ask smokers to quit. He’s expected to acknowledge there are not many things government can do to force people to live healthier. But he will ask the Legislature to outlaw smoking at beaches in state parks.

A ban on smoking at beaches would make them more family-friendly, and improve the environment, says the governor's policy chief, Bill Rustem:

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Politics
8:47 pm
Mon September 12, 2011

Medical marijuana clinic owner charged with election tampering

The owner of a Lansing medical marijuana clinic faces 90 days in jail or a 500 dollar fine for an alleged attempt to trade pot for votes in city council elections.

Shekina Pena’s clinic offered a small amount of pot or a marijuana-laced treat to medical marijuana card holders as part of a voter registration drive. At the same time, the clinic advocated for city council candidates who opposed a restrictive local medical marijuana ordinance.

John Sellek is the spokesman for state Attorney General Bill Schuette. He says the law does not allow anything of value to be offered in an effort to influence a vote.

"The voters of Michigan when they enacted the Michigan medical marijuana law, they intended that marijuana to be used for a narrow group of people who are seriously ill," said Sellek. "They did not intend for it to be used basically as a door prize to encourage somebody to do something, and that’s what they were doing in this instance."

Pena did not respond to a phone message left at her clinic. Schuette led the campaign against the 2008 statewide medical marijuana ballot question, and supports efforts to add restrictions to the voter-approved law.

Politics
6:18 pm
Fri September 9, 2011

Court agrees to reconsider affirmative action ruling

Update 6:18 p.m.

Here's a copy of the court order.

5:42 p.m.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals will reconsider a decision to strike down Michigan's ban on race- and gender-based affirmative action in university admissions.

A panel of the court ruled in July that the affirmative action ban violated equal protection rights in the U.S. Constitution.

The new hearing will take place before more than a dozen judges that make up the entire sixth circuit appeals court based in Cincinnati.

Michigan voters approved the amendment to the state constitution in 2006. The amendment was challenged in federal court by several civil rights groups. Oral arguments and a decision in the case are not expected before next year.

Here's an excerpt from a press release from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette:

On July 1, 2011, a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit issued a 2-1 decision that declared Michigan’s constitutional ban on racial preferences in public education unconstitutional on the grounds it allegedly violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.   

Schuette appealed the ruling through a formal request for rehearing en banc with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.  A rehearing en banc involves presenting the case to the full court of the 6th Circuit for review.  This process is reserved when new decisions conflict with previous rulings, and for questions of “exceptional importance” (Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure - 35).

MCRI was approved by a 58% majority of Michigan voters in November, 2006.   The day after the measure was approved, several organizations filed suit to invalidate MCRI.  The measure was previously upheld in December 2006 when a separate three judge panel from the 6th Circuit issued a preliminary ruling that unanimously concluded the measure passed Constitutional muster. 

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative will remain in force pending a final decision by the court.

5:21 p.m.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to reconsider a decision to strike down Michigan's ban on race- and gender-based affirmative action in university admissions.

 

Politics
1:44 pm
Fri September 9, 2011

Judge strikes down Michigan law barring protests at military funerals

Update 1:44 p.m.

A federal judge has struck down the Michigan law that bars protests at funerals.

Detroit U.S. District Judge Thomas Ludington says the law violates free speech rights and is too vague too enforce.

Lewis and Jean Lowden challenged the law after they were stopped and removed from a funeral procession by police.

They had signs critical of President George W. Bush taped to their car windows.

They were on their way to the burial of a family friend who died in Iraq.

Dan Korobkin is the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented the Lowdens. He says it is still illegal to disrupt a funeral.

"But what’s not against the law is to express your own views on a public street and risk being arrested or penalized for that just because your views don’t accord with the views of other people – either at the funeral or, even in this case, the police officers who were directing traffic," said Korobkin.

The law was passed largely to stop the Westboro Baptist Church from protesting at the funerals of fallen service members. Members of the church show up outside military funerals with signs that say the deaths were caused by America’s tolerance of homosexuality.

10:55 a.m.

This just came in from MPRN's Rick Pluta:

A federal judge has struck down the state law barring protests at military funerals.

The Michigan law was passed in 2006 to keep members of the Westboro Baptist Church from demonstrating at military funerals. More than 40 states passed similar legislation barring the practice, according to the First Amendment Center.

Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro protesters in the "Snyder v. Phelps" case.

Last month, a similar state law in Missouri was found to be unconstitutional by a federal judge.

We'll have more from Rick Pluta later today.

Crime
5:13 pm
Thu September 8, 2011

Guard accused of smuggling drugs, tobacco into prison

A guard at the state prison in Newberry is being held in the Mackinaw City jail awaiting felony charges of trying to smuggle contraband to inmates. John Cordell is with the Michigan Department of Corrections.

"It appears from the investigation that he was trying to introduce contraband – both heroin and contraband tobacco, which is illegal inside facilities – inside the correctional facility."

Cordell says the man faces at least three felony charges. He says the scheme was detected from monitoring phone traffic into the prison and information from a cell phone that was seized from a prisoner.

The guard was stopped and arrested in downtown Mackinaw City. Cordell says the contraband was in the corrections officer’s car.

The guard has also been suspended without pay from his job at the prison in the eastern Upper Peninsula.

Politics
6:02 pm
Tue September 6, 2011

Gov. Snyder changes welfare in Michigan, signs four-year cash assistance cap

Governor Rick Snyder has signed legislation that would end cash assistance welfare benefits after a family has been receiving payments for 48 months or more. 

About 12,600 cases, many of them families with children, will close and lose their benefits when the law takes effect on October 1.

In a statement, Governor Snyder says four years should be long enough for people to become self-sufficient and some people have been getting cash assistance for as long as 14 years.

Critics of the new limits say many of the people who will lose assistance are families with children, and many of the people who lose the benefits are adults who can’t find a job in a bad economy.

Governor Snyder’s administration says caseworkers will still make sure families who lose benefits will continue to get Medicaid coverage, food assistance, and help with training and job searches.

The savings to taxpayers is pegged at $65 million dollars in the upcoming fiscal year.

Republican state lawmakers say this won’t be the final word this year on changes in the welfare system.

The State House could vote as soon as this week on more limits to public assistance, including making sure automatic teller machines in casinos cannot accept Bridge Cards to make cash withdrawals, and canceling the cards of people with outstanding warrants.

Politics
6:24 am
Tue September 6, 2011

Snyder to sign welfare cap this week

Governor Rick Snyder is expected to sign a new 48-month cap on cash assistance welfare benefits into law this week. The new limits are expected to immediately reduce the cash assistance caseloads by 15 percent. The measure got final approval from the state legislature last month.

About 12,600 people have been on cash assistance for 48 months or more, and payments to those families will end when the state’s new fiscal year begins October 1st.

“It was always meant to be a bridge and it’s become a lot longer than that in Michigan  -- in some cases, many individuals or families have been on it for five, six, seven, eight, 10 plus years,” says Sara Wurfel, Governor Snyder’s press secretary.

The new limits are expected to save the state $65 million dollars in the new budget year.

Michigan’s four-year cap on cash assistance will make the state’s welfare limits among the strictest in the Midwest. Advocates for the poor say private agencies may not be able make up the difference for people who still need help. They say many of the people who take payments for extended periods are the chronically unemployed who are struggling through the poor economy.

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Politics
11:43 am
Fri September 2, 2011

Fairness of pension tax will be decided by Michigan Supreme Court

The Michigan Hall of Justice - where the Michigan Supreme Court sits. Justices will decide on the fairness of the new tax on pensions.
user subterranean wikimedia commons

The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to let unions and business groups weigh in before the justices rule on whether the state’s new tax on pension income is legal.

The court will hear arguments in the case next week.

Governor Rick Snyder asked the court to cut short any legal challenges with a preemptive ruling.

The governor wants an opinion from the court before the end of the month.

His budget relies on $343 million dollars from taxing pensions, and he wants to avoid months or years of legal wrangling on the question.

The governor asked the court to decide whether the pension tax breaks a promise by the state to retirees and public employees; and whether income limits in the law amount to a graduated income tax – which is prohibited by the state constitution.

The Supreme Court has agreed to accept briefs from retiree associations and unions that oppose the pension tax, as well as business groups that say the tax is fair.

The Michigan Education Association, the UAW, and the AARP are among the groups that filed briefs opposing the tax. They say the pension tax breaks a promise to retirees and public employees, and it violates the state constitution.

Business groups, including the Michigan Bankers Association, and the Small Business Association of Michigan, are backing Governor Rick Snyder. They say the pension tax is fair because it treats all income equally in the tax code.

If the pension tax is upheld, pension income will be subject to the state income tax starting January 1, 2012.

Politics
2:58 pm
Thu September 1, 2011

No layoff notices for Michigan's state employees

Update 3:12 p.m.

Governor Rick Snyder has decided not to send out 30-day layoff notices to thousands of state workers while contract bargaining continues.

Allowing today’s deadline to pass means no workers can be laid off with the start of the state’s new fiscal year on October 1.

The governor’s spokeswoman says he wants to send a signal that he’s confident a deal can be reached without resorting to layoffs and other temporary solutions to keep the state budget balanced.

Ray Holman is with UAW Local 6000, the largest state employee union. He says the decision not to send layoff notices was the right one.

 "We agree with Governor Snyder that we need to make structural changes and what we need to do is look at the private contracts and then also invest in frontline staff, invest in the foot soldiers - the people actually doing the work."

Holman says that means managers should be first in line to lose their jobs to budget cuts.

The Snyder administration is trying to convince state employees to pick up a bigger share of their health and retirement costs.

The administration is looking for a total of $265 million dollars in employee savings.

2:58 p.m.

Governor Rick Snyder's administration will not send layoff notices to state employees as contract talks continue.

Snyder's spokeswoman says he wants to send a signal to state employees that he believes a deal can be struck before the state's new fiscal year begins on October 1.

State contracts require 30-day notice before layoffs can occur.

Politics
5:28 pm
Wed August 31, 2011

Michigan court strikes down medical marijuana legal defense

The Michigan Court of Appeals struck down Brian Reed's medical marijuana legal defense today.
Garretttaggs55 wikipedia commons

The Michigan Court of Appeals has rejected the legal defense of a man who got a medical marijuana card after he was busted for possession.

This the second time in two weeks the appeals court has narrowed the scope of the state’s medical marijuana law.

Last week, the appeals court ruled shops where money is exchanged for medical marijuana are illegal.

Now the court has ruled people who grow marijuana better have their state-issued medical marijuana cards in hand – getting one after a police raid is no defense against prosecution.

The court struck down the defense against marijuana charges that has been tried in several Michigan counties.

Brian Reed’s home was raided after a police drug team spotted six marijuana plants growing in his backyard.

Reed says he never got a medical marijuana card because his regular doctors work for a clinic that would lose its federal funding if they prescribed marijuana to patients.

Between the raid and when he was formally arrested and charged, Reed got a different doctor’s approval and a state-issued medical marijuana card as a treatment for chronic back pain.

Reed said that should be enough to protect from prosecution under Michigan’s medical marijuana law, which was approved by voters in 2008.

The appeals court upheld a lower court ruling and agreed a person busted for marijuana possession cannot use getting a doctor’s permission after the fact as a legal defense.

The ruling could be appealed to the state Supreme Court, which already has two other medical marijuana cases on its docket.

Politics
5:04 pm
Tue August 30, 2011

Appeals Court: Kilpatrick book sale proceeds must go to Detroit first

The Michigan Court of Appeals says former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick does not get to keep the money from sales of his new book until he has paid his restitution to the city.

Kilpatrick argued, through his attorney, that the government could not take the profits from his book without violating his First Amendment rights. He said that would keep him from earning a living by telling his story.

A lower court judge ordered profits from the book put into an escrow account under a Michigan law. It does not allow felons to profit from talking or writing about their crimes if they still owe restitution. The state is also trying to collect $15,000 from Kilpatrick to reimburse taxpayers for his 14-month prison stay.

Kilpatrick was recently released from prison. A judge in Detrot found he'd hidden assets that could have gone toward paying his $860,000 debt to the city.

Kilpatrick has been living with his family in a Dallas suburb since his release from prison. He is also traveling the country promoting his book. He could appeal the court decision to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Election 2012
6:22 am
Mon August 29, 2011

Snyder endorses Hoekstra

Former Republican West Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra (pictured) will be endorsed later today by Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder.
Republican Conference Flickr

Update 3:23

Michigan Public Radio's Laura Weber covered today's announcement. She reports Hoekstra says he and Snyder became friends after running against each other in a “hard-fought” primary for Governor last year:

“Isn’t it great that two people can go through a campaign, they can go through a primary, and at the end of that process they actually like each other, they actually have respect for each other, because they went through it in a way that the people of Michigan respected.”

Hoekstra said he does not think Snyder’s sinking approval rating will have a negative impact on his campaign for Senate. In his remarks, the governor reciprocated Hoekstra's admiration. Snyder said the experience of gave him respect for Hoekstra:

"Being one of our senators is critically important to our state, so I felt it was appropriate to speak up on this. And it was so easy to speak up. This is a case where we have a compelling candidate.”

6:22 am

Governor Rick Snyder has scheduled a press conference today to endorse former Congressman Pete Hoekstra in the race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination. Michigan Radio was first to report the endorsement earlier this month.

Snyder and Hoekstra first got to know each other last year as rivals for the Republican nomination for governor. Snyder won, but people close to the governor say he walked away from the campaign with respect for Hoekstra. They say Snyder praised Hoekstra as a results-oriented congressman with a history of rising above partisan interests to get things done.

The endorsement will put the governor at odds with other Michigan Republican power players. Billionaire Betsy DeVos, Republican National Committeeman Saul Anuzis, and ex-Senator Spencer Abraham – all former GOP party chairs – are backing school choice advocate Clark Durant.

Former Judge Randy Hekman, anti-gay rights activist Gary Glenn, and Roscomman businessman Peter Konetchy are also vying for the nod to face incumbent Senator Debbie Stabenow next year.

Politics
12:33 pm
Fri August 26, 2011

Court rules Michigan legislature illegally quashed pay raise

The Michigan Court of Appeals says the Legislature violated the state constitution by illegally taking money from state employee paychecks to cover retirement health care costs.

State employees are in line to get back $60 million dollars that was withheld from their paychecks if this decision stands.

The court of appeals says then-Governor Jennifer Granholm and the Legislature could not take three percent of state employee salaries for retirement costs after lawmakers failed to block three percent pay raises.

The pay raises were approved by the independent state Civil Service Commission, and could only be reversed by super-majorities in the House and Senate.

The appeals court said that was just another way to take away the pay raise, and violated the process set up by the state constitution.

Governor Rick Snyder says the money is needed to help cover a shortfall in the state employee retirement fund. He could ask the state attorney general to appeal the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court.

*Correction - an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the current Michigan legislature and Governor Snyder "adopted the plan earlier this year that requires state employees contribute 3 percent of their paychecks toward their retirement health care costs."

The plan was adopted under a previous legislature and then-Governor Granholm.

The headline has been changed as well. (previous headline "Court rules Michigan legislature and Gov. illegally quashed pay raise").

We regret the error.

 

 

State Recalls
7:45 am
Wed August 24, 2011

Scott recall effort appears headed for November ballot

The campaign to recall the Republican chair of the state House Education Committee is a step closer to appearing on the November ballot. The state Bureau of Elections has informed state Representative Paul Scott that the campaign to recall him appears to have gathered enough valid signatures to get the question on the ballot.

The recall campaign needed to gather 9,600 signatures from registered voters in the Genesee County state House district. Elections officials determined the campaign gathered more than 11,000. Representative Scott has two weeks to file any challenges to the signatures. The Secretary of State will make an official decision by September 9th. Scott is also challenging the recall campaign in court.

The Michigan Education Association made Scott a top recall target over cuts to schools and the new tax on pensions. Scott is the only state lawmaker potentially facing a recall question on the November ballot. But there are two dozen other recall petitions circulating. The recall is also considered by many to be a local referendum on the record of Republican Governor Rick Snyder.

Politics
5:04 pm
Tue August 23, 2011

Appeals to the federal court that struck down affimative action ban

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission is fighting state Attorney General Bill Schuette in court.

Schuette wants to restore the voter-approved ban on affirmative action in university admissions.

The commission has filed a brief with a federal appeals court saying the court made the correct decision.

A panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the ban on affirmative action in admissions policies last month.

The Michigan attorney general is now asking the entire court to reconsider and reverse that decision.

He says the court should give deference to the wishes of Michigan voters who approved the ban in 2006.

The Civil Rights Commission is an independent agency. The members of the commission were all appointed in recent years by Democrat Jennifer Granholm when she was governor.

The brief filed by the commission says universities, not voters, should be trusted to make decisions in the best interests of their students, and it was unconstitutional to single-out admissions policies dealing with race and gender diversity on the ballot.

There is no word on when the court may decide whether to reconsider the decision.

Politics
4:24 pm
Tue August 23, 2011

Michigan legislature to vote on changes to healthcare benefits

The legislature will vote on changes to health care benefits for public employees tomorrow.
Lester Graham Michigan Radio

Thousands of teachers and local government employees will have to pay more for their health care benefits under a plan to be voted on tomorrow at the state Capitol.

The plan limits what school districts and local governments can pay for health benefits.

A legislative committee approved the measure today. It's expected to be voted on tomorrow by the House and the Senate.

It will require local governments to pay no more than 80 percent of their employee health care costs, or limit the payment to $15,000 a year per family.    

Read more
Economy
6:39 am
Tue August 23, 2011

Report: Traffic crashes add up to $4.8 billion a year in economic costs

ChazWags Flickr

A new State Police report says traffic crashes in Michigan carry a price tag of $4.8 billion dollars a year. The report says the cost of traffic crashes in Michigan exceeds the cost of crimes.

Researchers used data from 2009, when the human toll of traffic crashes was 937 deaths and more than 70,000 injuries. They put the economic damage for those crashes at $4.8 billion dollars. That includes the cost of medical care, property damage, and lost earnings, among other things.

The institute also used data on jury awards to put a value on pain and suffering caused by traffic crashes, which put the number over $9 billion dollars. The study compared the dollar loss from crashes to the cost of violent and property crimes that are tracked by the state, and found the costs of crime are dwarfed by the costs of traffic crashes.

The report was commissioned by the state Office of Highway Safety Planning and was conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Politics
5:57 pm
Wed August 10, 2011

Seniors challenge pension tax

seemann MorgueFile

Groups representing seniors and public employees filed briefs Wednesday with the state Supreme Court challenging Michigan’s new tax on pension income. The court will hear arguments in the case early next month .

Extending the income tax to pensions was part of Governor Rick Snyder’s budget proposal that was adopted earlier this year by the Legislature’s Republican majorities.

Eric Schneidewinde is with the AARP of Michigan. He says the tax violates a part of the state constitution that protects the pension income of teachers and other retired public workers.

“They cannot be taken away by just a law,” Schneidewinde says.

Republicans say the tax treats everyone the same, so it does not specifically target public employee pensions. Schneidewind says the AARP and other senior advocates are plotting ways to repeal the pension tax altogether.

Governor Snyder asked the state Supreme Court to rule on the pension tax before it officially takes effect in January.

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Politics
5:48 pm
Wed August 10, 2011

Attorney general wants medical marijuana law changes

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette says opportunists have hijacked the state's medical marijuana industry.
kconnors MorgueFile

State Attorney General Bill Schuette is backing proposed changes to Michigan’s voter-enacted medical marijuana law. He says it’s been “hijacked” by people trying to make money, rather than offering relief to people facing terminal disease or a painful chronic illness.

Schuette says the result of a poorly written ballot initiative is the proliferation of shops that make a business of selling marijuana to people with easy-to-acquire medical cards.

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