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

Gov. Rick Snyder’s influential budget chief is leaving the administration to take a job in his native state. John Nixon will depart March 1 for the University of Utah.

Nixon pushed very hard to pay down long-term debt, put more money into the state’s savings account, and get public employees to pay a bigger share of their benefits.

“We’ve been able to do some pretty impressive stuff,” said Nixon. “I know the budget’s in structural balance. I think we’ve laid a strong fiscal foundation for the state that’s going to help move it into the future.”

sierravalleygirl / Flickr

The Michigan Commission on Agriculture and Rural Development is about to hold its final hearing on a controversial new rule. It would end Right to Farm protections for people who raise chickens and other livestock in residential areas.

Rick Pluta / MPRN

About 500 people packed a Michigan State University campus hall Friday to witness President Barack Obama sign the new federal farm bill.

The event capped years of negotiations and some tough compromises with Congress on the complex legislation. President Obama said he’s always glad to return to Michigan to cheer the auto industry recovery. Now, he says, it’s time to do the same for agriculture and rural America.

In 270 days – come Election Day 2014 – it’s not just candidates you’ll be voting for, there are likely to be plenty of ballot questions, too. And, much like 2012, when there were half a dozen ballot questions, we might just see a repeat of Ballot-o-palooza.

Ballot questions can sometimes get people who might not be super-invested in voting for a candidate to actually get out and vote for a particular issue. For example, 2004, when a slew of anti-gay marriage ballot proposals may very well have helped George W. Bush win reelection.

But it’s not easy to get ballot questions passed. Voters tend to shy away from passing new laws via ballot. In fact, if you don’t start out with more than a 60% approval of your question, the chances are you won’t win come Election Day.

In 2012, $154 million dollars were spent on ballot questions and yet all six were defeated.

Which raises the issue: Money spent on ballot questions is often money that would otherwise be spent on other campaigns. Thus, the decision to go to the ballot with a certain issue raises lots of questions: Is it the best use of money, personnel, volunteers? How will it affect turnout – that’s if it affects turnout at all.

What will this year’s dynamic be?

Well, look for news early next week on the minimum wage ballot drive that would initiate a law raising Michigan’s minimum wage to somewhere between $9 and $10 an hour.

LucasTheExperience / Flickr

A state elections board says it’s OK for two more petition drives to start collecting signatures to get on the November ballot.

The Board of State Canvassers gave the go-ahead to a petition drive to make being the Michigan Legislature part-time. The proposed amendment to the state constitution would limit regular sessions of the Legislature to no more than 60 days.

“It requires the Legislature, Michigan’s legislature, just like is done in a vast number of other states, to get their work done in a specific period of time and to spend more time with their constituents,” said Matt Davis, an attorney for the Committee to Restore Michigan’s Part-time Legislature.

Another petition was approved to make it easier to run petition drives to put questions on the ballot. Put Citizens in Charge wants to make it easier to collect petition signatures and tougher to knock a question off the ballot for technical violations. Among other things, it wants to preempt efforts to outlaw paying circulators by the signature, and allow out-of-state petition circulators.

Both ballot campaigns have until July 7 to collect almost 323,000 signatures.

Marijuana plant.
USFWS

The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled against a city that tried to ban medical marijuana within its city limits.

The sale and possession of marijuana is illegal under federal law. So the city of Wyoming, outside Grand Rapids, tried to outlaw medical marijuana by banning any substance outlawed by the federal Controlled Substances Act.

A medical marijuana user with a state-issued card sued the city, and won.

Rick Pluta / MPRN

Governor Rick Snyder’s budget proposal calls for more money for schools, universities, and local governments. The governor presented his budget proposal Wednesday before a joint hearing of the state House and Senate appropriations committees. He says the plan is a frugal budget, but it makes badly needed investments.

“The investments are working that we’ve made over the past few years,” said Snyder. “They’ve been strong investments, good investments, but let’s finish the job we’ve started.” 

The governor also called for an election year tax break.

A homestead property tax credit – that could be claimed against last year’s taxes – would target more than a million low- and middle-income families. The governor says it would send help to taxpayers that need it the most. 

He also asked for more money for roads, healthcare, early childhood education, and law enforcement – as well as a large deposit in the state’s “rainy day” savings.

The budget proposal was met with mixed reactions from school groups, local governments, and Democrats.

Many public school officials in Michigan say the 3% funding boost is helpful. But they say it’s not nearly enough to offset years of inadequate funding from the state. And they it’s not clear how much of that money will have to go to things like teacher retirement costs.

Governor Rick Snyder and other Midwestern governors have asked for federal assistance to help ease a shortage of propane gas throughout the region.

“We hope, with this request, that the federal government will join us in taking every possible action it can to help increase propane supplies and resolve this problem as soon as possible,” Snyder said in a written statement.

White House portrait

President Obama will pay his first visit to Michigan in 14 months.

The White House will release details next week on the president's scheduled Friday visit to East Lansing.

He is expected to promote elements of the economic program he rolled out in his State of the Union address. Among other things, the president called for an increase in the federal minimum wage.

Governor Rick Snyder has signed an executive order creating a Michigan Office for New Americans. The governor has made attracting immigrants a priority as part of his economic plans. The governor named Grand Rapids entrepreneur Bing Goei to lead the office.

“It’s not going to be a large department,” said Goei, “but it’s really to be that clearinghouse, that focal point, because, again, we have activities probably in every department of state government involved with immigrants. This is to have a clearinghouse, a center for that.” 

The governor says he will do what he can to make Michigan more immigrant friendly, while he hopes Washington can come up with a better national immigration policy.

“I think there’s a lot of evidence to say, particularly for skilled immigrants, they’re net job generators,” said Snyder. “They add jobs, they create economic wealth and well-being throughout the supply chain.” 

Scott Beale / Flickr

The "Designated Survivor" is the person from the President’s Cabinet who sits out the big, official political gatherings – like the State of the Union speech, or a Presidential Inauguration.

That survivor would be there if something unthinkable happens. The government would still go on. Someone would be in charge.

So that got us thinking about Michigan: What does Michigan do if a catastrophe wipes out the top echelons of state government?

Does Michigan have a plan?

Well, yes! It’s the “Emergency Interim Executive Succession Act.” Public Act 202 of 1959 reads:

“If the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, the elected Secretary of State, the elected Attorney General, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and Speaker of the House of representatives are not able or are unavailable to exercise the powers and discharge the duties of the governor because of a disaster, the available emergency interim successor highest in order of succession shall exercise the powers and discharge the duties of the office of governor.”

In the case of the unthinkable – whether it’s zombies, or an attack on the state - if the entire line of succession is wiped out or incapacitated, there is still a plan for someone to be in charge.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder will formally launch his reelection bid Sunday with a Super Bowl TV ad, followed by a six-stop announcement tour on Monday and Tuesday of next week.

The announcement is no surprise.

The Republican governor has made clear for quite some time his intentions to seek a second four-year term.

The governor could make some mention of his plans Friday afternoon when he addresses the Michigan Press Association.

His likely Democratic opponent on the November ballot is former congressman Mark Schauer.

Michigan Supreme Court
photo courtesy of the MI Supreme Court

The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether the right-to-work law applies to 34,000 state civil service workers.

The court ordered the state and public employee unions to file briefs in anticipation of oral arguments later this year. The unions are appealing a lower court decision from last summer. It said the right-to-work law does apply to state civil service workers. The law says workers do not have to pay union dues or fees to hold a job, although the union is still obligated to represent them.

State employee unions say the law is trumped by the Michigan Constitution – specifically, the provision that says the Michigan Civil Service Commission sets the work rules for state employees. The court will also hear a union challenge to the state law that requires civil service workers to contribute more of their paychecks toward their pensions, or have their retirement benefits reduced.

The state House could vote soon on a measure to require political candidates to reveal felony convictions that occurred within the prior 10 years.   

The bill would require candidates to indicate the convictions when they file to run for office. Convictions that are expunged or sealed by a court order would be exempt.

State Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Twp., sponsored the bill. 

“We’re trying to make sure the electorate knows who we are, and we’re being transparent,” said Kesto, a former prosecutor. “Because when it comes to criminal activity, it comes to the integrity of certain individuals who are the candidates, and we should be held to a higher standard.”

Kesto says the measure is not aimed at anyone in particular. However, there is a House Democrat, state Rep. Brian Banks, D-Detroit, whose eight felonies for fraud remained a secret until late in his primary campaign.


* "This is not a bailout"

Gov. Rick Snyder used the phrase “this is not a bailout” five times in the 26 minutes he used to announce the first details of a “grand bargain” to settle the Detroit bankruptcy and the fight over pension benefits.

The governor’s plan would commit as much as $350 million over 20 years to help dig Detroit out of bankruptcy and keep the assets of the Detroit Institute of Arts off the auction block.

The money would most likely come from what Michigan is getting from the national tobacco settlement, that 15-year-old cash cow that’s been tapped for college scholarships, economic development, Medicaid – the list goes on. And now it might be part of the Detroit bailout (but don’t call it a “bailout").

So, there’s this plan and a revenue stream to go along with it. Now, the governor just has to sell it to the Legislature.The Michigan Constitution requires every dollar that goes to the state to go through the Legislature’s appropriations process.

And we wouldn’t exactly call this a done deal or an easy sell. After all, this is an election year. And Republicans, especially those west of Lansing and north of Clare, have little reason to go along with a political hot potato like aid for Detroit. At least two Senate Republicans, probably more, are looking at primaries. Plenty of House Republicans are also looking over their shoulders for a Tea Party primary challenge. Politically speaking, there are probably more reasons not to do this than to do this.

Tiberius Images / Flickr

It took a push from Gov. Rick Snyder, but efforts to put Michigan on record as supporting a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution are moving again at the state Capitol.

Gov. Snyder supported the idea last week in his State of the State address. Today, a state House committee held its first hearing on two resolutions calling on Congress to convene a convention of the states to draft a balanced budget amendment. 

Khalilshah / Flickr

Michigan’s unemployment rate last year averaged 8.4%. That’s down from 8.9% in 2012. 

The state's annual jobless rate has gone down now for three years in a row. But while hiring is up, much of the decline in the rate is also due to people who’ve quit looking for jobs and are no longer measured as part of the workforce. 

Officially, there are 394,000 unemployed people in Michigan. The average length of unemployment is 39 weeks. The combined rate of unemployment, people who’ve stopped looking for jobs, and under-employment is 15.3%. That is also a drop from the previous year, when the unemployment and underemployment rate was 16.6%. 

Michigan House Republicans

A state commission that’s looking at an overhaul of mental health services has released a sweeping set of proposals.

The last big overhaul of the mental health system wrapped up in the early 1990s, when most of the state’s psychiatric hospitals were closed.  

This commission convened by Gov. Rick Snyder found there are still barriers to helping people with mental health issues live productively. 

Before we dive into this week's It's Just Politics, we gotta give a shout out to the Washington Post who named co-host Rick Pluta one of Michigan's best state capitol reporters in America. Cheers, Rick!

“We are reinventing Michigan,” said Gov. Rick Snyder in last night's State of the State address; an address that could (in a much-abbreviated form) double as a reelection campaign speech. It was filled with a lot of good news of revenue surpluses, money for early childhood and schools, etc.

A little something for everyone.

For conservatives -- who have not fully embraced this governor -- Snyder joined the call for a balanced budget amendment to the US Constitution. For moderates and independents, Snyder used the speech to try quell some of the controversy that’s being created within and about the Michigan Republican Party.

Here’s what he said: “Publicly tonight, I’d like to make a call to all citizens of Michigan, to ask us to have a greater degree of civility and respect towards others of different backgrounds and different views. The future of Michigan is dependent on having people understand that differences are a positive power, that we can find common ground and let’s work to bring Michiganders together, not divide us.”

MIGOP / Instagram

Gov. Rick Snyder put services for immigrants and seniors at the top of his to-do list for 2014 in his State of the State speech yesterday.

The governor also promised to extend pre-school to every child in the state that wants to attend, and trumpeted the state’s economic recovery as he prepares to seek a second term.

"We are reinventing Michigan," Snyder said. "Michigan is the comeback state."

Snyder noted that hiring is up, and more people are looking for work — although Michigan still has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates and many families living in poverty.

But the governor says things are getting better and the state’s improved budget position and the prospect of a revenue surplus is evidence of that. He said much of that money — more than a billion dollars over the next three years — should be used on infrastructure, investments, and savings. But he also said taxpayers should get some of it back.

“There’s going to be some opportunity for tax relief,” Snyder said.

Joe Gratz / Flickr

The Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld a law that requires teachers and public school employees to pay more for their retirement health and pension benefits.

The law was challenged by teachers’ unions, which say it illegally changes public school employees’ contracts without their consent. The 2012 law requires teachers to pay more for their benefits, accept lower retirement health and pension benefits, or move into a defined contribution 401 (k) plan. The law has been a big tension point between teachers’ unions and the Snyder administration.      

Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration says it was a necessary measure to get a handle on long-term retirement costs. The administration says it reduces unfunded liabilities by $15 billion, and makes the system more stable. 

Control – the ability to command and direct events – is the elusive ambition of politicians. Politicians seek office promising to get things done or, in some rare cases, to stop something from getting done. But, mostly, they want to control their fates. We all want that, of course, but, it is not that simple.

Public life is complicated and messy.

Take, for example, Gov. Snyder. In just less than a week, Snyder will deliver his fourth State of the State address. He’ll wax on about the accomplishments of the last three years as he also proposes an agenda for this year and lays the groundwork for his reelection bid.

And, yes, we say his reelection bid. Though the governor has not yet announced he will seek reelection, as we’ve talked about before on It’s Just Politics, Snyder is certainly already acting like a candidate. The governor’s reelection campaign has already bought airtime, just like they did four years ago, on Super Bowl Sunday. (One more reason we know Snyder will run again: He’s said the Detroit Lions will be in the Super Bowl before he leaves office… yet another thing he can’t control.)

Going into the 2014 election, Gov. Snyder and other Republicans would like to be focused on good news like revenue surpluses and balanced budgets. But something always seems to get in the way. And, this week, that was the continuing drama surrounding former state Treasurer Andy Dillon’s personal and professional life.

Gov. Rick Snyder is decidedly cool about the tax cut fever sweeping the state Capitol. That fever stems from a projected budget surplus for the current fiscal year that could be more than a half a billion dollars in this fiscal year.        

“Let’s get the facts first and then let’s make sure we’re being fiscally responsible for the long term,” he told reporters this week. “Because it’s not just about looking at rollbacks. It’s looking at the best long-term solution for our citizens.” 

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Many schools will remain closed for a third day tomorrow due to cold temperatures and sidewalks that need to be cleared. At least half a dozen deaths have been linked to the  cold temperatures. And officials continue to advise drivers to take it slow and beware of ice.

Gov. Rick Snyder says there’s still plenty of work to do to clean up from the storm.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

A new report says a permanent solution to the Asian carp threat to the Great Lakes could take years to build and cost billions of dollars.

The report says it’s very possible for the invasive species to slip from the Mississippi River system into the Great Lakes. And that it’s possible for the species to live in the lakes and grow in population.

The report was prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Congress.

Gov. Rick Snyder is asking people to stay home if possible for the duration of the cold snap that’s plunged to near-record cold temperatures.

“Stay inside as much as you can. Stay warm,” he said, adding that people who do venture onto the roads should go very slowly.

“In particular, when you’re going out there on the road, if you’re on one of our highways or freeways, really slow down on the ramps,” Snyder said. “That’s where we’re seeing a large number of the incidents really happen is people are really getting on the ramps and going at excessive speeds. Even though they may think they’re going slowly, go even slower, please.”

The state Department of Transportation says at least 2,500 snow plows have been deployed to clear highways and local roads. Almost every school in the state is expected to be closed for a second day so children are not subjected to below-zero wind chill.

Shiawassee and Cass counties have declared states of emergency because of the cold.

Lansing these days could be renamed Surplus City, where we’re just looking for ways to spend the money that Michigan is expected to rake in this year. It appears our deficit days are behind us; we are now looking at a tidy little budget surplus. Early estimates put the number in the hundreds of millions of dollars range but we’ll get an official projection a week from today when the state holds the next revenue estimating conference.

People come to the Capitol and watch as economists talk about, ya know, economic things and come up with an official budget number. And one thing is certain: No matter how big the surplus is, there will be more ideas on how to spend it than actual money to spend. And, there’s already a list including road funding and more money for schools and universities.

Democrats also say they want to restore the Earned Income Tax Credit and Homestead Property Tax Credit. And, there will likely be talk about more money for local governments. These are things that Democrats, as the minority party in the Capitol, would typically have little influence over. But they have a little more to work with right now. That’s because, for one thing, it’s an election year, if -- as expected -- Republicans put more money into schools and universities -- it becomes harder for Democrats to use those as campaign issues. There’s also controversial questions like road funding and auto insurance, issues that aren’t likely to get resolved without some measure of Democratic cooperation.

So, we are faced here, with a fiscal philosophical question: What is a budget surplus?

Michigan Attorney General office

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette says he supports efforts to block federal health insurance mandates that require contraception coverage in employer-funded health plans.

But he says he also supports a woman’s right to access birth control.

“There’s a difference between abortion and birth control, and anybody who’d want to limit the choices and options for a woman on birth control is absolutely bonkers, nuts, and crazy,” Schuette says.

401(k) 2013 / Flickr

Michigan’s plan to expand Medicaid health coverage to more than 300,000 low-income residents has been approved by the federal government. The state’s plan will require co-pays and health care savings accounts.

sushi ina / flickr

Governor Rick Snyder has signed a law that outlaws efforts to require disclosure of the donors behind so-called “issue ads.” It appears to be a reversal of one of his campaign pledges.  

The governor came out against anonymous issue ads in a 2010 campaign white paper. Issue ads tell people to “call” or “contact” a politician without expressly advocating for how they should vote.

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