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

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Update 5:14 p.m.

Governor Rick Snyder’s tax overhaul plan began working its way through the Legislature today as it cleared the state House by a mostly party-line vote.

The Republican tax reform bill would replace the complex and unpopular Michigan Business Tax with a corporate profits tax.

Two-thirds of Michigan businesses would not have to pay the tax.

Part of the revenue lost to the state would be made up by eliminating dozens of tax breaks.

Many of them go to businesses and charities. Also gone would be earned income credit for working poor families and the income tax exemption for most seniors on pensions.

“This is a turnaround moment for Michigan,” said Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger. “Today’s winners are our local small business owners. Today’s winners are the unemployed because now those small business owners can create jobs.”

Democrats say it’s not fair to make working families and seniors make up the difference while most businesses pay less. Democratic state Representative Barb Byrum says it's not a fair trade.

“This legislation is not a shared sacrifice and should not be adopted. Today is just another day another day to give an 82% tax break to wealthy, corporate special interests. Another day to take from our children, our seniors, and our working poor."

The measure now goes to the Republican-controlled state Senate.

3:41 p.m.

Governor Rick Snyder’s tax overhaul plan has begun its march through the Legislature.

It won the approval of the state House by a mostly party-line vote.

The measure would scrap the complicated and unpopular Michigan Business Tax.

It would be replaced by a corporate income tax that would not be paid by two-thirds of the state’s businesses.

Part of that lost revenue would be made up by ending many tax breaks for businesses, working poor families, and seniors on pensions.

Noah Smith / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder was in Detroit today to outline his expansive education reform plans. The governor says Michigan does not have to spend more money to improve the performance of a failing education system.

The governor say it’s largely a matter of reallocating resources to reward success and to craft a system that reflects Michigan’s new economic realities.

Governor Snyder says his education plan would refocus schools on student advancement and performance, empower teachers and hold them responsible, and offer parents more options when schools are failing.

Allan Cleaver / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder says he may want to bank the money from an unexpected improvement in tax collections – if the windfall exists.

Early revenue projections suggest Michigan may collect $500 million more than anticipated.

But Governor Snyder says he’s not ready to count that money as part of his budget plans.

He says the state may be better off putting it into savings.

“I’m bullish that we’re on a positive economic path, but to say we’re going to see just an upward curve without a few bumps, I would be careful about speculating that given the challenge of gasoline prices and such.”

Democrats want to use any windfall to scale back proposed cuts to schools. The next official revenue estimate comes in mid-May.

The House and Senate are continuing to work this week on budget proposals with an eye toward finishing before June first.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

State Police officials told a legislative committee that devices designed to pull data from cell phones are only used to investigate the most-serious crimes and are not part of routine traffic stops.

State Police officials say the data extraction devices are rarely used – and never without a search warrant or the consent of a phone’s owner.

State Police Inspector Greg Zarotney says the devices are used when certain crimes are committed:

"Typically, and I would say overwhelmingly, they are used in high-level crimes to investigate child exploitation, homicide cases, high-level drug cases, those types of situations where we’ve obtained the cell phone either through a search warrant or their consent, and we’re doing some type of data extraction to build our case,” sais Zarotney.

But State Police officials do not know how often the devices have been used.

Representative Tom McMillan chairs the House Oversight Committee, and he says the possibilities created by new technology also pose new challenges to privacy.

"As technology evolves, we may need to think about how to assure the public of a negative – what we’re not doing," said McMillan, "I don’t know what that’s going to look like, how possible it is, but I do think that we ought to broach that and start looking at that."

McMillan might hold future hearings on electronic privacy and protecting people against overly intrusive searches of phones and personal organizers.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is worried state police may be extracting personal data from cell phones illegally; a concern state police say is unfounded.

The Michigan State Police came under criticism for attempting to charge the American Civil Liberties Union hundreds of thousands of dollars for access to records on how the devices are used.

Zarotney says that’s because authorities don’t keep specific records on the devices, and gathering the information would have required inspecting thousands of police reports.

screen grab from TV commercial

People and businesses that owe back taxes to the state of Michigan have until June 30th to pay up without paying fines and penalties.

There are potentially hundreds of thousands of people and businesses that owe the state unpaid taxes.

The state hopes to net $90 million dollars from the tax amnesty program. 

State Treasurer Andy Dillon says if you owe, now is a good time to pay:

"It doesn’t matter why you didn't pay your taxes – the penalties can be forgiven. And the penalties can be quite stiff. It depends on the tax that you’re talking about, but it can be as much as 25% of the liability that can be forgiven, and the sooner you pay it off, the sooner you stop paying interest on that obligation."

This is the third time since the 1980s the state’s offered amnesty to people and businesses with unpaid back taxes.

The program requires payment of all back taxes plus interest.

The amnesty program was approved by the Legislature last year to find some new revenue to help balance the budget.

The Michigan Tax Amnesty website declares "all excuses welcome."

Here's the program's TV spot:

Governor Rick Snyder offered some hints as to what his soon-to-be unveiled education reform plan will look like.

The governor addressed an education conference in East Lansing today.

Governor Snyder says student test scores are both “startling and scary,” and that Michigan is falling behind the country and the world in preparing young people for life after school:

“We need to do better and that’s something we need to focus on and we will,” said Snyder.

The governor says he wants to relax school regulations s to give teachers and principals more freedom and responsibility over educational decisions. And then he says the state will measure what happens:

“We need to put much more focus on proficiency, on growth, on measurements and results than we have had in the past," he said. "It’s about really delivering results for these kids. The whole system has to be geared to say, 'how do we make sure each and every child in our system gets a good year’s education each and every year?' Think about all the great talent, all the great resources that we have in our system, yet we’re not achieving the results that we have to achieve."

The governor also says he wants to do more to keep gifted teachers in classrooms instead of promoting them into administrative positions.

The governor says he envisions an education system that starts with pre-school and continues past college.

The governor will roll out his education reform agenda on Wednesday in Detroit.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

It appears Michigan may be in for a revenue windfall of about $500 million dollars more than  it was expected to take  in this year.

The state Senate Democratic leader says Governor Rick Snyder and the Legislature should use that money to avert cuts to schools.

The state Senate Democratic leader is calling for protections in the Michigan Constitution against using the School Aid Fund for any purpose other than K-through-12 education.

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer says she’s looking for any way she can to avert school aid cuts as high as $470 per student.

Nissim Benvenisty / wikimedia commons

Governor Rick Snyder says he is opposed to provisions in Republican budget plans that would restrict how money is spent on embryonic stem cell research at public universities.

Republican lawmakers are renewing efforts to enact additional rules surrounding the voter-approved amendment that allows public funds to be used for the research.

Voters approved the amendment to the state constitution in 2008.

Since then, Democrats have blocked efforts by opponents of embryonic stem cell research to demand reports or enact additional restrictions on  it, but now Republicans are in charge in the Legislature.

Governor Snyder is a Republican who supports the voter-approved amendment and stem cell research.

The governor says he wishes Republican lawmakers would leave stem cell research out of the debates on university spending:

"I think we need to focus on higher education, not stem cells. We passed a constitutional amendment on that topic some time ago and we need to follow through on what our voters said."

The governor has the authority to veto budget line items.

The governor and the Legislature are continuing to negotiate on the budget with the goal of having it wrapped up by June first.

Michigan Municipal League

Governor Rick Snyder will address an education conference in East Lansing today. He is expected to call for an across-the-board shakeup in how Michigan prepares students for 21st Century jobs.

Governor Snyder is expected to say Michigan falls short in critical measurements like third grade reading scores, eighth grade math scores, and its number of college graduates. At the same time, his budget plans call for less money for schools and universities.

Bill Rustem is a senior advisor to the governor. He says education reform can save money, but it needs to start before children are born and continue past high school.

“We’ve got to improve in a way that enables that whole system from pre-natal all the way through college to be a better system producing people who are smarter, better, and able to compete in the 21st Century.”

Details of the governor’s school reform plans will wait until later in the week when he sends an education message to the Legislature.

Early drafts of Republican budget plans include some measures that Governor Rick Snyder did not call for in his proposal for the coming fiscal year. Among them are new rules on embryonic stem cell research conducted at state universities and publicly funded clinics.  

Similar measures were blocked in recent years by Governor Jennifer Granholm and Democrats in the Legislature. New Republican majorities are renewing efforts to enact new restrictions and reporting requirements over the objections of researchers. They say the proposed rules would quash their work.

Governor Rick Snyder supports embryonic stem cell research and the voter-approved amendment that allows it at publicly funded facilities. The governor has not taken a position on the budget language. Sara Wurfel is the governor’s press secretary.   

“We’re going to be looking at everything closely when it comes through. The governor’s been very clear and consistent that he respects the Legislature and the legislative process. It’s still got a long way to go. It’s just one step.”   

And legislative leaders say these early versions of the budget bills do not necessarily reflect what will come from the final round of negotiations. The governor and legislative leaders say they’re on track to wrap up the budget by their self-imposed May 31st deadline.

Simon Brass / Flickr

A coalition of mental health advocates is calling on the state Department of Corrections to alter its policy of moving as many prisoners as possible from brand-name prescriptions to generic drugs.

The Department says the new policy will save taxpayers’ money without endangering prisoners’ health.

The Mental Health/Justice Coalition says the policy is too sweeping when it comes to inmates with mental illnesses. The Coalition includes inmates’ families, psychiatrists, judges, and attorneys.

Peggy Christian is the mother of an inmate:

user the consumerist / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder has signed a law that protects doctors from lawsuits if they express sympathy for the death of a patient.

Snyder says health care providers are often prohibited from saying “I’m sorry” when a medical procedure fails because it can be considered an admission of guilt in court.

Snyder said the new law will allow doctors to be more supportive, "and the opportunity for health care professionals to have a dialogue with families that have had some traumatic experiences," said Snyder. "So it’s great to have an opportunity to have that be done in a safe and thoughtful fashion so people can have good communication and good dialogue."

Snyder says studies show that when a doctor is allowed to say “I’m sorry,” people who are grieving are better able to heal.

user frank juarez / Flickr

A state Senate budget subcommittee has rolled back the size of Governor Rick Snyder’s proposed cut to K-through-12 schools.

The Senate subcommittee recommendation would still cut school funding by $170 per student, but that’s less than the $300 per student cut called for by the governor in his budget proposal.

State schools superintendent Michael Flanagan says more money for K-through-12 education is always welcome, but Flanagan says he’s concerned about what might have to be cut to make up that money.

"I don’t want to see pre-natal care for moms go at the expense of a couple of bucks in the formula, so that we actually have a bigger problem than we would have had, and I hope that’s what we can start to get people to think about is the continuum of services for kids – not just the K-12 issue."

The full Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on the budget recommendation tomorrow, along with budgets for universities, community colleges, and state agencies.

The governor has set a goal of wrapping up the entire state budget by June first.

More than 300 local officials and prospective emergency managers are in Lansing today and tomorrow to be trained in the state's new fiscal crisis law.

The law gives sweeping authority to emergency managers named to run school districts and local governments that can no longer pay their bills.

Terry Stanton of the Michigan Department of Treasury says the goal is for the state to intervene earlier to avoid the drastic step of a state takeover.

 State House Republican leaders failed to muster enough votes to reverse health benefits for the live-in partners of state employees. The new policy will treat unmarried employees with live-in partners the same as married employees, and it will apply to people in same-sex relationships. A two-thirds majority vote isrequired to reverse  the contracts approved by the state Civil Service Commission.

GOP lawmakers said the Civil Service Commission decision undermines “traditional families” and violates the intent of a voter-approved amendment that bans same-sex marriage and civil unions in Michigan.

House Speaker Jase Bolger says he is looking for other avenues to block the new policy from taking effect October first.

"I’m going to continue to explore the legality of their decision. I believe they made an end run around the constitution. I’m not an attorney, but I’m going to consult with attorneys to see if something can be done about their illegal decision,” Bolger said.

Democrats say the Legislature should not rescind agreements collectively bargained with state employee unions.

State Attorney General Bill Schuette has also been asked for an opinion on whether state employee live-in partner benefits violates Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban.

Khalilshah / Flickr

One in 10 people in Michigan are out of work and looking for a job. The state's March unemployment rate was 10.3 percent. That's almost unchanged from the February rate of 10.4 percent. But it's a full three points below the March 2010 rate of 13.3 percent.

Michigan added 79,000 jobs over the past year, mostly in temporary help, IT, and the auto in industry.

Improvements in the unemployment rate have been modest so far this year, but reflect real job gains and not people leaving the workforce.

Ifmuth / Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder and Republican leaders in the Legislature have struck a tentative bargain on tax reform and the state budget. The plan delays an October 1st income tax rollback and includes a compromise on taxing pensions.

Michigan is one of just a handful of states that does not tax pensions. The deal between Governor Snyder and GOP leaders would shield people 67 years old and older from a pension tax. The governor originally wanted to tax all pensions, but he says compromises were necessary. Governor Snyder:

“So it’s a transitional plan that I think addresses the shorter-term requirements while being structurally sound for the long term.”

The plan also calls for scrapping the complicated and unpopular Michigan Business Tax in favor of a corporate income tax. That’s part of an overall tax cut for most businesses to spur job creation.

The plan would eliminate the tax break for working poor families, but offer some new tax relief for low-income homeowners and renters.

The plan must still be approved by the House and the Senate.

Teenagers convicted of having an under-aged consensual sexual relationship will no longer risk being placed on the state’s sex offender registry.  Governor Rick Snyder has signed a law reforming Michigan’s sex offender registry.

People convicted of serious sex crimes will still be on the state’s Tier One registry and will have to report their whereabouts at least four times a year. But people convicted of less-serious crimes will not have to register. And many people convicted as teens will be able to ask a judge to remove them from the registry. 

Michigan State Police Sergeant Christopher Hawkins says:

“The sex offender registry was really designed to notify the public of dangerous offenders and sex predators who live in their neighborhoods. When you have offenders who are, say, a 17-year-old who had a consensual sexual contact or a consensual sexual act with their 15-year-old boyfriend or girlfriend – that’s not really a dangerous offender who the public needs to be aware of.”     

Michigan has one of the biggest sex offender registries in the country. About one out of every 200 people in Michigan is a registered sex offender.

There have been complaints since it was enacted in 1995 that the law is too harsh on some young offenders. But it took the threat of losing federal victim compensation funds to force a change in the law.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

The state Treasury Department says medical marijuana cannot be taxed in Michigan without a change in the law. The medical marijuana law was enacted by voters in 2008. But the law is silent on the question of taxing medical marijuana dispensed by licensed clinics and caregivers.  

James Campbell is an accountant who asked for the opinion. He says the state has not been taxing dispensaries and caregivers. But Campbell says he could not be sure that wouldn’t change.

At the state Capitol, House Republican leaders will resume their efforts to pick up 11 or more Democratic votes to reverse the policy of letting unmarried state employees claim their live-in partners on their health benefits.

The state Civil Service Commission approved public employee contracts at the beginning of the year that allow live-in partner benefits. That’s the only way the state can legally allow coverage for same-sex couples.  

Pages