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

Photo courtesy of www.governorelectricksnyder.com

Governor Rick Snyder is asking state workers to be patient as his administration tries to set Michigan’s fiscal affairs in order.

The governor sent an e-mail to state workers last week saying he does not want a Wisconsin-style confrontation. The e-mail was sent to 50,000 state employees.

Governor Snyder promised to work within the collective bargaining process on concessions to help balance the budget, and he complimented state workers on their dedication and creativity.

He specifically said,“Michigan is not Wisconsin,” and “tough decisions do not have to be polarizing.”

The governor said his goal is to stabilize Michigan’s finances so state workers don’t have to negotiate new concessions in the future to help address a financial emergency. And, Snyder hinted that future changes to public employee compensation might be in store. He said some public employees are overpaid, some underpaid, and he has some ideas on correcting that.

User P.E.C. / Flickr

Several hundred demonstrators braved cold and snow to gather in front of the state Capitol Saturday afternoon. It was both a gesture of support for Wisconsin protesters, and to oppose some Republican-sponsored measures before the Michigan Legislature.

This was the third big rally this week by unionized teachers, police officers, and other public workers opposed to taxing pensions, suspending arbitration rights, and requiring workers to pay more of their health care costs.

Governor Rick Snyder says he is anxious to avoid the angry standoffs between public employee unions and Republican leaders that have taken place in other states.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

"Kill the Bill....Kill the Bill" shouted hundreds of municipal labor union members as protests continued for a second day at the state Capitol in Lansing. Hundreds of unionized firefighters and police officers marched on the Capitol.

They are calling on the Legislature to reject a bill that would repeal the requirement that puts local government labor disputes into binding arbitration.

Local government officials say binding arbitration leads to expensive settlements.  Unionized workers say binding arbitration is a fair way to settle disputes, and its a concession unions made in return for giving up the right to strike.   Jason Sneft is a firefighter from the city of Jackson. 

“This is probably step in a long couple years of many steps of trying to eliminate union actions.”

Drivers honked their horns in support as uniformed firefighters and police officers lined both sides of the street in front of the Capitol. The binding arbitration measure is not scheduled for a vote yet.

The House is expected to vote on another bill that would give state-appointed local emergency financial managers the power to discard union contracts.

Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley
Photo courtesy of www.governorelectricksnyder.com

Senior aides to Governor Rick Snyder say they don’t expect the massive budget protests in Wisconsin will spread to Michigan. Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley says Governor Snyder’s style is less combative than that of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Calley also says he expects most critics of the Snyder budget will be persuaded to change their minds. He says that’s because tough choices this year will avert the need for more cuts in the future.

“Number one, we’re not going to kick the can down the road. Number two, we’re not going to employ one-time gimmicks and quick fixes and those sorts of things. We’re actually going to fix it so that, take a look at Year Two – this actually does solve the problem so going forth, we can actually spend more time on, where do we go from here? How do we work and grow together?"

Nevertheless, some public employee and retiree groups are trying to organize a protest march on Lansing this week. They oppose a demand for public employees to pay more of their health care costs, and a proposed end to the tax exemption on pension income. Governor Snyder presented his budget proposal to state lawmakers last Thursday.

Governor Rick Snyder has asked the Legislature to reverse an employment panel’s decision to allow un-married state workers to claim their live-in partners on their benefits.  

The governor’s letter gives the Legislature 60 days to overturn the state Civil Service Commission’s decision. Reversing the independent Civil Service Commission will require two-thirds majorities in the House and the Senate. Both are controlled by Republicans, but getting to the necessary super-majorities is not guaranteed.  

Michigan Radio

Update 3:45pm

Governor Rick Snyder’s budget proposal calls for eliminating millions of dollars in business and personal tax breaks; big cuts to schools, universities, and local governments.  The governor says it is bitter medicine necessary to cure the state’s budget troubles, and set the foundation for an economic recovery. 

Governor Snyder says everyone will have to sacrifice to fix massive fiscal problems that have built up over decades under Republican and Democratic administrations. That includes growing pension and healthcare liabilities that the state will start to pay down.

 “We are going to take responsibility for a legacy of debt that has built up over decades.”  

 To pay for that, balance the budget, and cut taxes for businesses, Snyder wants to shut down state police posts and at least one prison; start taxing pensions; cut money for schools, universities, and local governments; and ask public employees to pay more for their benefits. 

Critics already say the budget will force more school districts and local governments into insolvency and families into poverty. The governor, who is a millionaire, says he will share in the sacrifice by working for a dollar a year.    

Budget Director John Nixon says the administration’s proposal will end the state’s string of budget crises and will send a message that Michigan is managing its finances.

“A lot of people are going to be upset with this budget. We understand that. But it’s the right budget. It’s a responsible budget that takes into account the needs of our citizens and taxpayers’ ability to pay.”

About two dozen state employees protested in Lansing today as Governor Rick Snyder presented his budget plan to state lawmakers. They complained about plans to roll back public employee benefits and tax pensions.         Tammy Warner works in the state Department of Human Services.

“The state is cutting all kinds of services not just to the poor – they’re actually decimating the middle class. They’re also decimating the state workers and they are making it impossible for us to live in this state.”

Public employees say they’ve already made concessions and accepted unpaid furlough days to help the state through earlier budget crises.   Advocates for low-income families say ending state the earned income tax credit for the working poor will result in more children living in poverty. School and city officials say cuts will force more local governments into insolvency.

Update 1:22

Democratic leaders in the Michigan legislature are reacting to Governor Snyder's budget proposal.

Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer called the Governor's budget "the same old politics of putting corporate tax breaks ahead of the people. From Whitmer's statement:

"Governor Snyder's idea of shared sacrifice seems to mean that working families will do most of the sacrificing while companies continue to reap the rewards," said Whitmer. "He is balancing this budget on the backs of our kids, working families, and our seniors. Contrary to his rhetoric about 'moving all of Michigan forward,' this budget picks out who he's willing to leave behind."

Update 12:43 p.m.

Governor Snyder has placed his budget recommendations to the Michigan legislature online.

Update 12:11 p.m.

"The day of kicking the can down the road is ending," declared Governor Snyder in calling for tax and budget changes that he says should have happened twenty or thirty years ago.   

Snyder says he used the principle of fairness in arriving at some changes, for example, an end to the Michigan Business Tax, the tax on unincorporated companies in the state.   Snyder says the tax is unfair because it's a form of double taxation, since the business owner already pays personal income tax. 

And he says individual pension income should be taxed.  Snyder says it's not fair to tax the income of senior citizens who are still working, and not tax retired senior citizens living on pension income.

Snyder wants to eliminate many individual tax credits, such as the deduction for donations to public universities.  But he would keep the deduction for personal property tax, although he says the property tax system will need to be overhauled at a later time.

Snyder says his budget keep the safety net for Michigan's poorest citizens intact.

Update 11:23 a.m.

Governor Snyder says he will share in the sacrifices he's calling for in the state budget by working for one dollar a year. The governor is presenting a budget that includes big cuts to schools, local governments, and public universities -- as well as eliminating many personal and business tax breaks. The governor's budget proposal also calls for an overall one-point-eight (b) billion dollar cut on businesses. - Rick Pluta

Update 10:48 a.m.

Michigan Government Television will carry Governor Snyder's presentation of his budget proposal live at 11 a.m.

The Michigan Senate will also live stream the presentation from their website.

7:11 a.m.

These details of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's $45 billion budget proposal were outlined to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

- Drops the individual income tax rate from 4.35 percent to 4.25 percent on Oct. 1; the tax will then remain at 4.25 percent rather than being decreased to 3.9 percent in future years as scheduled.

- Eliminates the state income tax exemption for pensions, but Social Security benefits will continue to be exempt.

- Eliminates the Michigan Business Tax and replaces it with a flat 6 percent corporate income tax on major corporations.

- Eliminates business credits awarded for films, brownfield redevelopment, the Michigan Economic Growth Authority, etc., although current commitments will be honored. Sets aside $25 million for film credits from the 21st Century Jobs Fund.

- Rolls funding for universities and community colleges from the general fund to the school aid fund, the main funding source for K-12 schools.

- Cuts per pupil funds $300, in addition to the currently budged $170 per pupil reduction.

- Eliminates statutory revenue sharing payments for cities, villages and townships in FY 2012, leading to a net savings of $92.1 million. The change impacts 509 local units of government. Increases constitutional revenue sharing by 4 percent, to $659 million.

- Includes $200 million for a new incentive-based revenue sharing program for cities, villages and townships that meet specific standards to be detailed in March.

- Sets a lifetime limit of 48 months for residents to receive welfare payments, with exemptions for incapacity and hardship.

- Closes the Shawono Center in Grayling, and cuts 20 beds in capacity at the Maxey Training School in Whitmore Lake, resulting in $787,000 general fund savings.

- Eliminates 300 field worker positions in the Department of Human Services.

- Closes one prison to be named later this year.

- Reduces the number of Michigan State Police posts, saving $3.2 million.

- Reduces state aid to libraries in the Department of Education budget by $2.3 million in the general fund, with $950,000 directed to the Michigan eLibrary, resulting in net savings of $1.4 million.

- Suggests privatizing food service and prison stores operations in Michigan prisons, and suggests that resident care aide services at the Grand Rapids Veterans' Home be competitively bid.

-Turns the dairy farm inspection program over to industry field representatives certified by the Department of Agriculture.

Derek Key / Flickr

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette says the state should save money in the corrections budget by cutting the costs of incarceration - not by closing more prisons or releasing more inmates.

Schuette says he hopes that's the strategy Governor Rick Snyder will display when he unveils his budget proposal on Thursday.

Schuette says he advised the governor to focus on reducing the cost-per-inmate by bidding out more prison services:

Governor Rick Snyder says his budget will not call for cuts in payments to doctors, clinics, and nursing homes that take Medicaid patients.

Snyder administration officials say it is important to maintain those payments at their current levels to make sure providers continue to see patients.

The governor’s communications director, Geralyn Lasher, says that is a less costly alternative to people showing up at emergency rooms when they get sick:

"We want people having a medical home, having a physician’s office, having that physician really guiding as far as quitting smoking, leading a healthier life, we're going to see much lower healthcare costs down the road if people take those steps right now."

Lasher says there will be other changes in Medicaid.

There are almost two million people in Michigan in the health coverage program for low-income people.

Medicaid makes up about 20% of the state budget.

Wayan Vota / Flickr

Democrats at the state Capitol are calling for a law that would allow unmarried couples to adopt children. Right now only married couples or individuals can adopt children. 

State Representative Jeff Irwin says it makes sense to allow couples who want to adopt but can’t get married to share the rights and responsibilities of raising children.

Wayan Vota / Flickr

Democrats at the state Capitol are calling for a law that would allow unmarried couples to adopt children. Right now only married couples or individuals can adopt children. 

State Representative Jeff Irwin says it makes sense to allow couples who want to adopt but can’t get married to share the rights and responsibilities of raising children.

"It’s a pro-family bill. It would assure that in a situation where you’ve  got two loving parents who want to take on the obligations of parenthood that both of those individuals are afforded the opportunity to help a young person in this state by being a parent.”

"Kids thrive in situations where they have two parents, and they struggle in situations where they have one, and so the state should be taking every possible opportunity to allow people to adopt kids in such a way as to ensure as many kids as possible have two parents.”

Irwin says joint adoptions would also make it easier to settle visitation and child support issues when a couple breaks up.

It’s not clear how Michigan’s ban on gay marriage or treating same-sex couples as if they are married would affect the effort to allow joint adoptions.

The state Supreme Court could also weigh in on the issue. A lower court recently denied a woman joint custody of the children she was raising with her same-sex partner before they separated. That woman has appealed the decision.

Irwin says no Republicans have signed up to support the legislation. Both the House and the Senate have G-O-P majorities.

Photo courtesy of www.governorelectricksnyder.com

The crowd at a fundraising dinner for the Michigan Political Leadership program was maybe hoping Governor Rick Snyder would drop some clues on what’s going to be in his budget proposal next week.

The governor revealed almost nothing about his spending plan. But he did make a bold sports prediction. Governor Snyder said:

"Before I finish office, the Lions will be in the Super Bowl – how’s that?"

The governor did not say if that would be in the next four years – or if a championship season for the Lions would require a second term. The Lions record last season was six victories to 10 losses, following a winless season in 2009.

A study commissioned by a union-backed think tank says reports that state and local government employees in Michigan are overpaid compared to workers in the private sector are wrong.

The study is by the Washington D.C. based Economic Policy Institute.

It says college-educated public employees earn 21% less than private sector workers with degrees.

It also found local government workers were compensated at about the same rate as their private sector counterparts.

Jeff Keefe is the Rutgers University management and labor relations professor who conducted the study:

"So the study concludes that state government employees are under-compensated in the state of Michigan, while local government employees are neither over- or under-compensated in the state of Michigan."

The report takes into account education, salaries, and benefits.

Ethan Pollack, with the Economic Policy Institute, says employee compensation is not the biggest factor behind the state’s budget trouble:

 "Michigan isn't significantly different than the deficits you are seeing all across the country…This is not about over-compensation of public sector workers. This is [about] two things. The cyclical deficit is from the recession, and the structural deficit is health care costs."

The Economic Policy Institute says its seven-state study found growing health care costs, and not employee compensation, are the biggest factor in budget deficits.

Michigan Supreme Court

The Michigan Supreme Court will decide whether it is appropriate to allow children to testify in criminal cases behind screens that shield them from seeing defendants.

The court agreed today to take the case.

The U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to confront their accusers in court.

In the case going before the Michigan Supreme Court, an eight-year-old girl testified that her brother-in-law had repeatedly raped her over a period of years, and exposed her and her brother to pornography.

The jury did not believe the man’s defense that the girl made up the charges to break up his marriage.

The defendant says he was deprived of his right to confront the primary witness against him because she testified from behind a one-way screen.

The screen shielded her view of the defendant, although he could see her.

A therapist said that was the only way she could testify without risking serious emotional damage.

The defendant says the shield prejudiced the jury against him, and that the Constitution requires witnesses to look defendants in the eye when testifying against them.

Photo courtesy of www.governorelectricksnyder.com

Public employees are taking issue with Governor Rick Snyder’s citizen’s guide to the state’s finances. They say it presents an incomplete and inaccurate picture of employee compensation in the public and private sectors.

Unions say the data in the guide does not compare similar jobs in the public and private sectors. They point to half a dozen studies that paint a different picture than the Snyder administration’s data.

Nick Ciaramitaro is with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees:

"Salaries tend to be a little lower, benefits tend to be a little higher in the public sector, but if you look at total compensation, which is what the governor says he wants to look at, we’re very close or a little behind the private sector."

Ciaramitaro also says the data in the guide may not take into account unpaid furlough days taken by state and local workers.

The governor acknowledges the numbers in his guide are a broader overview of compensation trends, but he says he’s open to looking at other data before he presents his first proposed budget later this month: 

"I’m happy to have people react to it whether they agree with it or don’t agree with it because that may bring other data forward that may be worth considering as part of this process. It’s an open  dialogue. This is how you actually set the framework to have the open discussion you’d really like people to have.”

Snyder says that discussion will influence his administration’s budget plans. The governor will present his budget proposal to the Legislature on February 17th.

Pure Michigan

A measure to fully fund the Pure Michigan advertising campaign for the rest of the year appears poised for a vote next week in a state House committee.

Tourism officials and travel-related business owners showed up at the first hearing to support the legislation.

Dan Musser’s family owns the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. He says the national ad campaign has helped draw a growing number of out-of-state visitors to the island.

"Our potential is even greater than our success at this point, but if the campaign is not fully funded, we’ve wasted the opportunity for the Pure Michigan brand to reach its full potential. That potential brings tax revenues to the state, supports and creates jobs for Michigan residents."

Musser also says Mackinac Island is splitting the cost of a $1 million nationwide Pure Michigan ad purchase with the state’s tourism agency, Travel Michigan.

The ad will use the Pure Michigan brand to specifically promote Mackinac Island to travelers.

The Henry Ford in Dearborn will also share the costs of national campaign promoting the museum and the Pure Michigan brand.

Travel Michigan says about 30 other resorts and regional tourism offices  are also forming Pure Michigan ad partnerships with the state.

(courtesy of the Michigan governor's office)

Governor Rick Snyder has ordered the State Emergency Operations Center to be activated to track events related to the coming winter storm.

The governor says he's also ordered the Michigan National Guard to be ready to help local governments deal with emergencies that may arise.

The governor says he's also instructed state agencies to make sure hospitals, prisons, and other essential facilities are adequately staffed.

The Pure Michigan campaign will run out of money mid-year without an infusion of more funds.

A state House committee will hold its first hearing tomorrow on a plan to tap into a state-operated venture capital fund to keep the Pure Michigan campaign on the air for the rest of 2011.

Earlier efforts to come up with an acceptable fee or tax to pay for the campaign have failed.

Governor Snyder will roll out a citizen’s guide to the financial troubles facing the state, local governments, and school districts before a meeting of business leaders in Lansing this afternoon.

The governor is a retired investor and certified public accountant. He says the guide will give the public an easy-to-grasp outline of the condition of government finances in Michigan.

Governor Snyder says the state’s official financial report runs more than 200 pages and is too big and complicated, and it’s filled with too much bureaucratic jargon for most people to understand.

Snyder says his administration has picked what he considers the most critical information, such as the state’s revenue-to-expenditures, its reserves, and long-term obligations such as pensions, and put it into an easy-to-follow 13-page briefing:

“So I think this will be a big help in terms of the stage for a more-informed discussion, where all the public can participate because we’ll all have better facts to work off of and we’ll see how far beyond our means we’ve actually spent.”

Estimates peg the state’s budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year at about $1.8 billion.

The governor will present his plan to balance the budget later this month.

Photo courtesy of the Snyder administration

Governor Rick Snyder will speak later today in Lansing to the group Business Leaders for Michigan. He will release an outline of the data he thinks people need to understand the state’s budget crisis. He's expected to talk about his plans to reshape the state’s tax on businesses.

The Snyder administration has been circulating a draft version of a plan to scrap the complex and unpopular Michigan Business Tax in favor of a six-percent corporate income tax.

But the governor cautions his business tax reform plan remains a work in progress:

There’s a lot of speculation going on, and it’s a good dialouge to have out there in the public. I think we’re going to have a great plan based on simple, fair, and efficient.

The governor says he’d like to make paying Michigan’s corporate tax so simple it can all fit onto a single page. He wants it be an overall tax cut on Michigan’s business sector -- though some companies will pay more, some will pay less, and some will pay no business tax at all.

Manufacturers and other businesses say they are withholding judgment until they see how it might affect their bottom lines.

Legislation to repeal the Michigan law that requires every item on store shelves to carry a price tag has been introduced in the state House.

Governor Rick Snyder called for an end to the 35-year-old item-pricing law last week in his State of the State address.

He says the law is outdated, and repealing it would send a message that Michigan is a business-friendly state.

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