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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Education
6:22 am
Fri August 5, 2011

NMU will not face sanctions related to tuition increase

Photo courtesy of Northern Michigan University

Governor Rick Snyder’s budget director has given his OK to Northern Michigan University’s tuition increase for the fall term. The decision means the public university in Marquette will not face sanctions for exceeding the state’s tuition increase cap of 7 percent. NMU said the university’s rate increase should not be measured against the fall 2010 rate after students got a discount. The university reduced student costs last year based on a windfall of federal stimulus dollars.

A spokesman for Budget Director John Nixon says he does not put Northern’s tuition hike in the same category as fall increases at Wayne State and Michigan State universities. He says MSU and Wayne State technically complied with the law, but violated the intent of efforts by Governor Rick Snyder and the Legislature to hold down tuition increases despite budget cuts to higher education.

Politics
3:19 pm
Wed August 3, 2011

Wayne State defends tuition hike, may face budget cut

User dctennis Flickr

Michigan State and Wayne State universities could face budget sanctions for violating tuition restraints. 

Wayne State officials were called in to testify today before a legislative subcommittee.

Wayne State officials said there was no intent to evade tuition restraints, echoing a similar claim by MSU officials when they were called in to testify earlier this summer.

Most public universities increased their fall rates at or below the 7% cap set by the Legislature compared to tuition set for the fall term of last year. But MSU and Wayne State compared their fall tuitions to summer rates, which had just been increased.

That did not sit well with state House universities budget chair Bob Genetski. 

 “This has been really unpleasant for everybody and our intent was really to protect Michigan families from tuition increases and, uh, our relationship’s been damaged.”

“They know that the very spirit of the legislation has been violated and that our efforts to protect kids in tuition-paying families were violated, as well.”

Genetski says he hopes MSU and Wayne State will reconsider their tuition hikes. If not, Genetski says he’d support going back and cutting state funding for the two schools even more.

Politics
8:41 am
Wed August 3, 2011

Snyder recall will not meet Friday deadline

Gov. Rick Snyder
Tiberius Images Flickr

The campaign to recall Governor Rick Snyder says it will fall short of the number of signatures it needs to gather by Friday to qualify for the November ballot.

But organizers say they will press on in an effort to qualify for the next election in February.

A recall spokesman says the drive got off to a slow start, and did not attract much attention until recently.

Bill Ballenger is the editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. He says recalling the governor is a huge challenge.

“You need so many signatures. You need over 800 thousand signatures – minimum. And you really have to have some padding because obviously Republicans and lawyers are going to challenge the petitions when they’re turned in. Some will be thrown out. So, realistically, you’d have to have, I say, over a million signatures.”

The recall drive says its new goal is to gather a million names by late September.

There are also petitions being circulated to recall more than 20 other legislators.

Ballenger says if one of those gets on the ballot, it would be a referendum on Snyder.

Politics
2:01 pm
Fri July 29, 2011

Michigan Supreme Court rules on prison rape

Joe Gratz Flickr

The Michigan Supreme Court has dismissed the civil rights lawsuit filed by a woman who was raped by a sheriff’s deputy while being held in jail. 

The victim sued Wayne County and the Sheriff’s Department after she was harassed and raped by a deputy while being held in jail for not paying child support.

The deputy – Reginald Johnson – was fired, charged with a crime, and convicted of rape.

The victim said the county and the sheriff’s department should be held responsible because Johnson could not have attacked her unless he was a deputy assigned to the jail.

The county argued there was no way the sheriff could have known or should have known the deputy was a sexual predator.

The court’s Republican majority ruled that Johnson acted outside his professional responsibilities and in direct violation of department policies.

Democrats on the court dissented. They said the majority decision undermines protections for victims of discrimination and harassment, and weakens Michigan’s civil rights law.

Legal
10:57 am
Fri July 29, 2011

Michigan Supreme Court rules on sexual assault case

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled on a sexual assault case today.
Michigan Supreme Court

The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that a woman who was raped by a jail guard while she was being detained is not entitled to file a civil rights and sexual harassment lawsuit against the county. The court said the local government is not responsible for the behavior of a public worker who acted outside the scope of his employment. The court's Republican majority split with Democratic justices, who say the decision undermines previous rulings that protect victims of discrimination.

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Politics
4:17 pm
Thu July 28, 2011

Clinic offers pot to customers who register to vote

A medical marijuana clinic owner offered pot to customers who also registered to vote
User Eljoja Flickr

Authorities are looking into whether a Lansing medical marijuana clinic broke the law by offering free pot to customers who stop by and register to vote.

The owner of the clinic opposes Lansing’s new restrictive medical marijuana ordinance and has called for the ouster of city council members who supported the ordinance.

The Your Healthy Choices Clinic advertised on its web site that customers who stop in and register would get a half-gram of pot or a marijuana-laced snack item. 

It also encouraged people to vote against city council members who supported Lansing’s medical marijuana ordinance. Authorities say that may have put the clinic afoul of state election laws.

John Sellek is the spokesman for Attorney General Bill Schuette. He says clinics have mushroomed far beyond what Michigan voters intended when they approved the medical marijuana law in 2008.

“And they certainly didn’t plan for those pot shops to be handing out marijuana as party favors essentially for their own political, personal agenda.”

“Certainly in Michigan, it is illegal to pass out some kind of gift or a party favor to encourage someone to vote a certain way or to vote at all, and that is concerning to the attorney general.”

Schuette is looking into filing criminal charges. The clinic owner told a Lansing TV station there was no attempt to buy votes – only to get people to register.

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Education
2:14 pm
Thu July 28, 2011

State Budget Director says MSU and WSU did not violate tuition cap

State Budget Director John Nixon says Michigan State University and Wayne State University did not violate the state's tuition cap of 7 percent when setting fall tuition rates and they will receive their full state aid payments. Nixon still needs to make a decision on whether Northern Michigan University exceeded the cap. 

Politics
6:09 pm
Tue July 26, 2011

State opens contract negotiations with employees

Governor Rick Snyder’s administration and state employee unions have begun a new round of contract negotiations.

The Snyder administration has set a big savings target -- $265 million - or an average of about $6,000 per state worker.

Jan Winter is the governor’s lead negotiator. She says saving $265 million in employee costs will be tough.

“Go the table, work as hard as you can. A lot of things can happen and we’re counting on working out good deals here.”

Winter says one idea is to ask state employees to pay more for their benefits.

“One of the things that we have looked at, clearly, moving to something like an 80/20 split on a health plan would mean well over $100 million in gross savings. We have a lot of ideas, and we’re hopeful the unions have lots of ideas, too.”

Cindy Estrada is the lead negotiator for UAW Local Six Thousand, the biggest state employee union.

She says workers are also looking to fix the state’s budget troubles.

“We want to create a Michigan, a state that in 10 years to come is more efficient, has better quality for the citizens that receive those services, and I think we can do that – if workers and management get together and we look for new solutions and we be really creative and stick to the commitment that we’re going to make structural changes, we can get there, definitely.

But Estrada says the savings should not come out of state employees’ benefits or paychecks since they’ve given up nearly $4 billion in concessions over the past decade.

The unions say state government could find big savings if it reduced the number of managers and outside contracts.

Politics
9:04 am
Tue July 26, 2011

Courts say same-sex partners do not have custody rights

The state Supreme Court has refused to take the case of a lesbian woman who wants the right to visit the children she helped raise with her ex-partner.

The court’s decision lets stand a lower court ruling that same-sex partners do not have custody rights in Michigan.

Renee Harmon and Tammy Davis were together for 19 years, and during that time started a family together. Davis served as the biological mother via artificial insemination to their three children. After the relationship broke up, Harmon was denied visitation and sued for parenting time.

Michigan does not recognize same-sex relationships - nor does it allow unmarried couples to adopt.

The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Harmon lacked the legal standing to sue.

The state Supreme Court allowed that decision to stand by refusing to take the case.

The court divided on party lines in its decision. Republican majority voted not to take the case. Democrats said the court should.

In her dissent to the order, Justice Marilyn Kelly wrote the case raises so many questions regarding the state constitution and parents’ rights that it “cries out for a ruling from the state’s highest court.”

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State Law
6:32 am
Tue July 26, 2011

State attorney general files charges under state’s new human trafficking law

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in Lansing on Inauguration Day. (Jan. 1st, 2011)
Covair Owner Flickr

The state attorney general’s office has filed the first charges under the Michigan’s updated law against human trafficking. A man is accused of forcing two teen-aged girls in Detroit to become prostitutes.

The man is charged with two counts of inviting teen-aged girls to parties and then forcing them to work as prostitutes, collecting all of the money, beating them for not earning enough, and sexually assaulting them himself. The attorney general’s new Human Trafficking Unit is trying to extradite him from California.

A study done last year for the Michigan Women’s Foundation found as many as 160 cases a month of girls being sold online or through escort services in Michigan. The study did not track how often teen-aged girls and boys are offered on the streets or in hotel rooms. But human trafficking is becoming more common across the country.

The Michigan Women’s Foundation says the new charges and penalties are useful – but the state should also have a “safe harbor” law that ensures people forced to become prostitutes are treated as victims and not as criminals.

Politics
6:49 am
Mon July 25, 2011

State to open contract talks with request for concessions

State Capitol Building, Lansing, MIchigan
Aflyingpsychofly Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder’s administration and state employee unions will open contract negotiations this week. The first topic of bargaining will be whether state workers will give up the salary and benefits they’ve already been promised.

The new state budget is not balanced yet. For one thing, the budget assumes millions of dollars in savings in employee costs. State state worker unions have yet to agree to those cuts. In fact, the state can’t even begin to negotiate unless the unions agree to re-open the current contracts. Kurt Weiss is with the state Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

“We know it’s a significant number. We know it’s a painful number.”

Weiss says the alternative to concessions is layoffs and privatizing services. The largest amount of money would come out of the state Department of Corrections.

State employee unions say state government is currently top heavy with managers and has too many contracts – and the Snyder administration should look those first before looking to squeeze more from frontline workers or lay them off.

State Law
6:40 am
Fri July 22, 2011

Law clarifies graduated license rules

YoungladAustin Flickr

A new law seeks to clear up some confusion on when teen-aged drivers may have other teens in a vehicle with them. Governor Rick Snyder signed the law yesterday. It says teen drivers may carry passengers between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. to and from school, church, or work-related activities.

Jack Peet is the traffic safety manager for AAA of Michigan. He says it was good to make the law more clear. But he says the law could have been made better if it placed some new restrictions on passengers in vehicles driven by teens. He says passengers increase the likelihood that a teen will be in a fatal crash.

 “So limiting those to no teen passengers in the vehicle would be our preference and we’re just talking about drivers there. Obviously, adding teen passengers during that time frame increases the risk for those teen passengers as well, so this would make teens a lot safer if there were stronger restrictions on that.”

Peet says it would make sense to at least have a no-passengers rule when a teenager first gets a license to drive without an adult in the car.

Great Lakes
5:55 pm
Thu July 21, 2011

Asian carp evidence renews calls for action

The electric barrier is located on the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal in Illinois. The barrier is supposed to keep asian carp out, but is it working?
USACOE

There is new evidence that Asian carp may have slipped past electric barriers in Chicago-area waterways. The barriers are meant to keep the fish from reaching the Great Lakes.

The news has launched a new wave of arguments over the threat posed by the invasive species.

The Army Corps of Engineers turned up nine positive tests for Asian carp DNA out of hundreds taken from Chicago-area waterways.

Federal officials say that’s not proof the invasive species is getting closer to Lake Michigan, or that it poses an imminent threat of infesting the Great Lakes.

The state of Michigan is suing the federal government to get the shipping locks shut down as an emergency precaution.

John Sellek is with the Michigan Attorney General’s office. He says there is a growing body of evidence that the threat exists.

“How many more warnings do we need at this point that that impending tragedy is coming? The time for studying is over. It’s time to take action.”

The state is appealing a judge’s refusal to close the Chicago shipping locks while the Army studies ways to permanently ensure Asian carp don’t become a Great Lakes problem.

Economy
6:42 am
Thu July 21, 2011

Job growth stalls, state unemployment rises in June

Ep_jhu Flickr

Job creation has been dragging for most of this year in the state and across the country. That helped push Michigan’s unemployment rate slightly higher to 10.5 percent in June.

There were 8,000 more unemployed people in Michigan last month – a total of 496,000 thousand people looking for work. The unemployment rate was inching downward as people found jobs in high-tech business services, health care, and manufacturing.

Bruce Weaver of the state Bureau of Labor Market Information says all that stalled in February.

“It appears that job levels have flattened out in the state and that’s across the board.”

The number of hours worked and payroll earnings also fell. The rate of unemployment and under-employment is 19.6 percent. That number counts part-timers who would like to work full-time, and former job seekers who got discouraged and quit looking.

Politics
5:10 pm
Tue July 19, 2011

Snyder signs tenure changes into law

Changes to teacher tenure rules in Michigan are coming after Governor Snyder signs a new bill.
user frank juarez Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder has signed a law that will make it easier for school districts to fire teachers in classrooms where students are struggling. It also eliminates discipline and layoff rules as a subject of collective bargaining with teachers unions. 

The governor says seniority is an outdated system for deciding which teachers are laid off first, and where they should work.

"We need a performance-based system that recognizes the very best that teachers can deliver and gives them good recognition and reward for those opportunities and that's what this is all about," said Snyder. "It's about moving forward and stop looking at a broken world of the past."

School employee unions say the new law will remove critical job protections and lead to districts getting rid of veteran teachers for financial rather than academic reasons.

Louise Somalski, with the American Federation of Teachers, says the new law takes away teachers’ rights to bargain for job protections as school districts face growing financial pressures.

"I’m afraid that when it comes right down to it, there so tight on money at the local school district level because funding has been cut, that the most-experienced teachers are going to be let go – and we want the most-experienced teachers with the kids and it's going to hurt the students in the long run."

A commission will make specific recommendations to the Legislature next year on how to measure teacher performance.

The new rules will take effect at the beginning of the school year that begins in the fall of 2012.

Politics
4:27 pm
Mon July 18, 2011

New agreement gives Michigan a fresh start to fix foster care

A federal judge in Detroit gave a go-ahead to a new agreement regarding the state foster care system.
User Sagitariuss Flickr

Children’s advocates and a federal judge have given Michigan another shot at fixing its foster care system. The plan was given the go-ahead today by a federal judge in Detroit.

The new agreement gives the state more time to hire and train caseworkers and  to get more children in foster care placed with permanent families.

The state also promised to pay more attention to older children in the system – especially those about to “age out” as they reach adulthood.

The state was out of compliance with an earlier agreement and this new decree represents a fresh start in an effort to resolve the five-year-old lawsuit. 

The consent agreement with the New York-based organization Children’s Rights was signed by Governor Rick Snyder and Department of Human Services Director Maura Corrigan – putting their credibility with the court on the line if the state fails to comply.

The first real test will come at the end of the year, when a court-appointed monitor files a report on the state’s progress in fixing its system for children in foster care.

Court
12:20 pm
Mon July 18, 2011

New agreement reached to improve Michigan's foster care system

Michigan will have to focus more of its efforts on finding homes for older children, and services for 18-year-olds who are about to age out of the child foster care system as part of a new court judgment. The new agreement is part of a five-year-old lawsuit against the state for its failures to place children in foster care with permanent families.

The Associated Press reports:

The state of Michigan and lawyers representing needy children have reached a new agreement on how to improve foster care and protective services.

A federal judge in Detroit approved the deal Monday. The state says it now gets more flexibility in complying with a 2008 consent decree. At that time, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm pledged to spend millions to help children in foster care and protective services, but her administration repeatedly got poor marks.

The new agreement extends certain deadlines to reduce the number of caseloads per worker. About 1,300 child-welfare workers retired last year, forcing the state to go on a hiring and training blitz.

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Politics
6:01 pm
Wed July 13, 2011

Michigan getting ready for federal health care law

The federal health care law is being phased in. States are getting ready to fulfill their obligations under the law.
Andrian Clark Flickr

The state Senate has opened hearings on how Michigan will handle its responsibilities under the new federal health care law. If Michigan does nothing, the state will be placed in the federal system when the law is fully enacted in 2014.

Republican leaders expressed hope that federal courts will ultimately strike down the health care law. But Senate Insurance Committee Chair Joe Hune says Michigan needs to be ready.

"This is all because of Obamacare, which is a downright travesty that that was passed through at the federal level, but we’re in a position if we do nothing that we’ll have the federal government breathing down our neck to put something in place that we definitely do not like," said Hune. 

Senate committees were told by consumer groups, social services advocates and businesses that Michigan would be better off designing its own system than joining the federal plan or a multi-state consortium.

Legislative hearings on the state’s role in federal health care reforms could last a year.

Election 2012
7:44 am
Wed July 13, 2011

State GOP could host early presidential primary

Michigan Republicans could host an early presidential primary next year.
Cle0patra Flickr

Michigan Republicans may try to boost their clout by holding a closed-party presidential primary a week before the Super Tuesday elections next year. The plan must still be formally approved by GOP leaders in August.

Michigan Republicans plan to hold their presidential primary either February 28th or March 6th of next year. Only people who declare themselves Republicans would be eligible to vote in it.

The state GOP's policy committee unanimously adopted the plan during a conference call.

Michigan Republicans risk losing half their national convention delegates if they hold a primary before Super Tuesday voting on March 6th, but some GOP leaders say the state could reap political rewards by going early.

The proposal must still be approved by the Michigan Republican State Central Committee at its August meeting, and then adopted by the Legislature and approved by Governor Rick Snyder.

Michigan Democrats plan to hold closed-party caucuses in May. President Barack Obama is expected to be the only contender for the Democratic nomination.

Politics
6:36 am
Wed July 13, 2011

MI Dept. of Education reverses confidentiality rule

The state Department of Education will no longer require people who serve on advisory panels to sign confidentiality agreements. The agreements required committee members to support all of a panel’s policy recommendations – even ones they don’t agree with.

The panels are made up of experts and stakeholders who help develop policy recommendations that go to the department and, sometimes, to the Legislature. People in the education community complained the signed statements seemed designed to stifle views that don’t go along with the group or the department. The department says it will no longer ask advisory panel members to sign the agreements.

Martin Ackley is with the state Department of Education. He says the goal is still to get the vast array of interests in education policy to reach consensus on complex questions.

“But if they don’t agree with the final consensus recommendation of the entire group, they can provide for a minority report that is in dissent.”

A government watchdog says it was a good idea to reverse the policy because it undermined public confidence that government is open to all opinions.

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