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

Marsha Caspar and Glenna DeJong with Frizzy. They were the first same-sex couple married in Michigan on March 22, after a federal judge struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban. The ban was restored by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Rick Pluta / MPRN

The legal team for April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse filed its appeal today with the U.S. Supreme Court. They want the court to rule that Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage and others like it across the country are unconstitutional.

This is speedy timing as Supreme Court appeals go. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled less than two weeks ago, upholding same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

The Ohio and Tennessee same-sex marriage appeals were filed last week. Now, Kentucky, and Michigan have filed. The goal is to get the case on the Supreme Court’s calendar in the current term.

“We’re very, very hopeful that the Supreme Court will take one of our cases,”said Dana Nessel, an attorney for DeBoer and Rowse, the lesbian couple from Hazel Park who sued the state of Michigan over its same-sex marriage ban. The two nurses want to get married so they can jointly adopt the children they’re raising together.

 There’s a split in Lansing about how far and how aggressively to push for gay rights in Michigan -- specifically to update the state’s civil rights law.

Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act

This is as much a cultural split between Lansing lobbyists and the LGBT community and how they view their mission as it is a difference of opinion about tactics and priorities. However, it has now jeopardized, if not already doomed, the effort to update Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA).

The ELCRA already has protections against housing and employment discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and weight, among other things.  It’s long been a goal of Michigan’s LGBT advocates to add LGBT protections to the law.

History repeating itself

Thirty years ago, that effort cost state Representative Jim Dressel (R-Holland) his job. He lost his Republican primary in 1984 after he introduced a bill to add the phrase “sexual orientation” to the law.

This past summer, state Representative Frank Foster (R-Petoskey) suffered a similar fate for being the millennial Republican leading the effort on the GOP side of the aisle. His hope was to leave the introduction of the law a part of his political legacy.

Gender identity

But, efforts to accomplish that goal in this year’s “lame duck” session are now hung up on the words “gender identity.” That phrase would ensure that transgender people are also covered under the law.

A business coalition, put together and led by AT&T of Michigan President Jim Murray, was pushing the issue saying it’s not just a question of fairness, but talent - convincing people that Michigan is open, inclusive, and a good place to look for a job. Not only was it a persuasive group on its own but pretty much every multi-client lobbying firm in Lansing was also engaged in the effort.

Wikimedia Commons

A federal judge has struck down a Michigan law that denies employer-sponsored benefits to many public employees in same-sex relationships.

The case was filed by five same-sex couples where one of the partners is employed by a local government or school district in Michigan. They challenged the law, which was adopted in 2011 by the Legislature and signed by Governor Rick Snyder.

US District Court Judge David Lawson issued a preliminary injunction against the law, and, now, has issued an order siding with the five couples. He says the case is not about same-sex marriage, which Michigan voters banned 10 years ago. He says the state adopted an unconstitutionally narrow definition of what makes up a family. And he says the law is rooted in official government hostility against people in same-sex relationships.

Blue Ocean Faith is an all-inclusive Christian community in Ann Arbor
user Marlith / Flickr

A debate is shaping up in the Michigan House on whether Michigan’s civil rights law should be expanded to protect gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from discrimination. There’s also a fight brewing on whether those protections should extent to transgender people.

And House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) said he would only support adding “sexual orientation” (but not “gender identity”) to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act if the Legislature adopts a law to grant exceptions for many people with religious objections.

Joe Gratz / Flickr Creative Commons http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The Michigan Supreme Court hosted a training day for judges and others assigned to work in specialty veterans courts. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young says veterans accused and convicted of crimes have unique issues that must be addressed if they’re going to be rehabilitated. 

“They are fraught with the all the difficulties that come with having served in armed warfare, and so these are courts that are tailored to the unique needs of our returning veterans,” says Young.

With the addition of seven new plants and animals, Michigan now bans 40 non-native species. That means they cannot be possessed or transported in Michigan or the rest of the Great Lakes region.

The expanded list is part of a deal reached between the U.S. states and Canadian provinces that border the Great Lakes. Many of the newly banned species are still in Europe and Asia, but the creatures get spread around through ships’ ballast. Tourism, and collectors of exotic plants and animals also contribute to the problem.          

DeBoer Rowse Adoption Legal Fund

Attorney General Bill Schuette and the couple trying to overturn Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage are on opposite sides of the case. But they’ve agreed they will cooperate in trying to get the case on the U.S. Supreme Court docket during the current session.

The state won the most recent legal round, but Schuette says he won’t oppose a motion to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court. Both sides have agreed they’re going to beat filing deadlines so the court can decide soon whether to hear the case next year.

A Republican wave on Tuesday.

Or was it? In Michigan, there is plenty of evidence that it was not, despite being a very good year for Republicans nationally.

More votes, less seats

No doubt there were a lot of Republican victories in the races for governor and the Legislature. But Rick Snyder’s 51 percent can’t be described as a blowout. A lot of the races in swing states were also quite close.

In fact, Democrats actually won more votes in state House races than Republicans. Democrats won more votes but got few seats.

In the 110 state House races, Democrats won 50.9 percent of the total vote. Republicans in aggregate got 48.9. Yes, Republicans won 63 seats but is 48.9 percent of the vote really a “wave”?

Dems win big in education

With one exception, Democrats swept the education boards - the state Board of education and the boards for Michigan State, Wayne State and the University of Michigan. That matters because, even though they are elected positions, almost no one knows who these candidates are.

That makes these board elections some of the most-reliable measures of core party strength - the stalwart yellow dog Democrats, rock-ribbed Republicans straight party ballot voters.

We should note, too, that the one exception is where a Green Party candidate ran a pretty aggressive campaign in the Spartans’ home turf of Lansing and East Lansing. That very well may have siphoned off enough votes from the Democrat to tip the race in the other direction.

 As we head into the last weekend before the election, Rick Snyder and Mark Schauer (and plenty of others) are making their final swings through the state, launching their final push to get out the vote.

These final few days are all about reaching voters, the would-be, possible voters and persuading, inspiring them to get to the polls.

Democrats Need Excitement

There are more registered Democrats in Michigan than Republicans. Michigan is a blue state. But Democrats don’t turn out to the polls the way Republicans do, particularly in midterm elections. That’s why in the past six presidential cycles, Michigan has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate but why, because they’re elected in the midterms, we have a Republican governor, secretary of state, and attorney general.

It’s toward that end that the D’s have a big attraction coming this weekend. President Obama is scheduled to campaign with Schauer and Democratic Senatorial candidate Gary Peters in Detroit on Saturday.

Nationwide, many Democrats are avoiding the president, but not here in Michigan. Instead, they’re betting the upside of the president’s visit will be bigger than the risk.

They’re hoping that the president can convince the legions that stepped out to support him in 2012 that they need to step out once again in 2014, even if his name is not at the top of the ticket.

Update: The state Dept. of Community Health now says it is monitoring nine people who traveled to west Africa, not 10 as it previously reported.  

The state Department of Community Health says it’s monitoring nine people in Michigan to see if they develop Ebola symptoms after they returned to the U.S. from west Africa. But health officials say none of them is  displaying any symptoms to suggest they might have contracted the Ebola virus on their travels.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder (left), and Democratic challenger Mark Schauer (right).
Gov. Snyder's office, and Schauer campaign.

One of the rituals of the political campaign season is the newspaper endorsement. This past weekend, the liberal-leaning editorial page of The Detroit Free Press – also the state’s largest newspaper – caused some head-scratching and tongue-wagging with its endorsement in the governor’s race.

The Free Press editorial page had pretty much stuck with the Democratic ticket in this election cycle. That is until this past Sunday, when it endorsed Republican Governor Rick Snyder for reelection.

Voters will get to weigh in on two laws that allowed gray wolf hunting in the Upper Peninsula.
Anders Illum / flickr.com

Michigan voters will get to weigh in on two laws that allowed wolf hunting in the Upper Peninsula.

The Humane Society just started airing ads aimed at persuading voters in the closing days of the campaign season, but whether people vote “yes” or “no” on wolf hunting, the two ballot questions are not the final word on the issue.

That’s because the ballot campaign on its own will not determine the future of wolf hunting in Michigan.

We are now a week and a half away from Election Day and this is the breakout time in any campaign season. The closing days when candidates and campaigns make their final pitches to try and close the deal with voters.

Although a lot of voters have already voted. As many as a third of the ballots in Election 2014 will be absentee ballots filled out before November 4th actually arrives.

Closing Arguments Coming Earlier

And that means as many as a third of Michigan voters have already made up their minds and won’t wait for November and the campaigns’ closing arguments. The fact that so many voters now use absentee ballots has pushed up the late-campaign attack ads; the ones that are really jarring.

Bobby McKenzie, Democrat running in Michigan’s 11th Congressional district, recently released an ad attacking his Republican opponent David Trott. It’s an ad that The Washington Post called “one of the most brutal attack ads you’ll even see.”

 Welcome to this fundraising edition of It’s Just Politics.

No, we’re not talking about Michigan Radio’s Fall Fundrive that’s underway (although the number is 888-258-98… ah, stop us!).

Instead, we are talking about Election 2014 campaign fundraising.

Endless pleas

If you’re on a campaign or party list you are well aware of the seemingly endless pleas for campaign cash.

“The entire team is still here. There is nothing we’d rather be doing than going home and taking a break. But we know how important this midnight deadline we’re facing is. If we don’t meet it, that means we could lose.”

Or this one from Senate Republicans, “Friend, I’m really disappointed and worried. I’ve been counting on your support to end Harry Reid’s disastrous control of the US Senate on November 4th….”

user FatMandy / flickr

Governor Rick Snyder has approved new laws to make it easier to prosecute pimps and human traffickers. The legislation is supposed to protect victims of human trafficking from criminal charges. One of the new laws shields children who are trafficked from prostitution charges. 

Theresa Flores wrote a book about being trafficked as a teenager in metro Detroit. She says protection for victims will encourage them to cooperate with prosecutors to help send traffickers to prison. 

 We’ve been talking for months now on It’s Just Politics about the fact that Election 2014 is really going to be about which party does a better job of getting out its core voters, especially whether Democrats can get their voters to the polls on November 4th.

Though there are more Democrats in Michigan, Republicans do a better job of turning out in mid-term elections, when a President is not at the top of the ballot.

That’s why, although Michigan is a blue-state, we have a Republican Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General (all positions that are elected in non-presidential years, when Democrats tend to stay home).

That explains why we’re seeing a competitive race for governor, although some recent polls show Republican Governor Rick Snyder opening a wider lead (some polls, not all).

Meantime, almost every poll shows Democrat Gary Peters opening a wider lead over Republican nominee Terri Lynn Land for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

U.S. Supreme Court
user dbking / flickr http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear seven same-sex marriage cases. And that leaves the fate of Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban with the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A decision from the Sixth Circuit could come at any time. The case was argued in August. Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee are also waiting on the ruling. A decision to uphold same-sex marriage bans in those states and Michigan would create a conflict between different circuits that could land the case before the Supreme Court.

Michigan Hall of Justice
User NewCityOne / flickr.com

The Michigan Supreme Court begins its new session this week. 

The first arguments beginning today will concern several issues, including delinquent taxes, Michigan's open meetings law, and governmental immunity from lawsuits.

Actively, the court is stacking up new cases for the coming months. Thus far, the justices have agreed to hear arguments on safety standards on construction sites and whether an armed robbery defendant was denied his right to effective legal assistance.

 “I would like to clear-up the biggest piece of hogwash on TV today.”

That quote was from Governor Rick Snyder at his first campaign town hall this week, pushing back on claims that his administration cut one billion dollars from the state’s education budget.

“They’re lying to you,” the governor told the town-hall audience on Tuesday evening in Kalamazoo.

And, it’s not just the governor, GOP officials and lawmakers have also released statement after statement calling the billion dollar cut a lie, as well as demanding TV stations pull the ad from rotation.

Rick Snyder wants the U.S., not Canada, to pay for the Ambassador Bridge's customs plaza.
Michigan.gov

Gov. Rick Snyder told a business conference in Grand Rapids today that he expects the new international border crossing between Detroit and Ontario will provide a boost to the entire Michigan economy.

The bridge will be largely financed by the Canadian government, which agreed to pay for both sides of the bridge after the Michigan Legislature balked at funding the project. However, Snyder believes it to be the United States' responsibility to to pick up the costs of the U.S. customs plaza. 

The persuadable voter. Political independents. There are not as many of them as there used to be. And they don’t seem to be the center of this campaign season as they have been in previous years (remember the ‘Soccer Mom’ or ‘Security Mom’?).

This year’s campaigns seem much more focused on getting out base voters. And, that is why we present a bold prediction: President Barack Obama will come visit Michigan before Election Day.

Democrats have pinned their hopes this year on Democratic-voter turnout. Michigan is a decidedly blue state. Democrats have a five or six-point behavioral - that is how people vote, not what they call themselves - advantage in Michigan. That advantage is why Democrats have won the last six presidential elections in Michigan.

But, Michigan is not a decisively blue state because so many Democrats sit out during the mid-term elections. And, that gives Michigan Republicans their best changes in statewide races. It’s largely why we have a Republican governor, attorney general and secretary of state (many Democrats stayed home on Election Day four years ago).

But, there’s another part of the equation: Republicans can’s win on their own. Yes, Michigan Republicans typically have a turnout advantage in mid-term elections, but it doesn’t get them all the way to victory. To win, Republicans have to win at least a slim majority of the independents who turn out to vote.

Detroit skyline.
user JSFauxtaugraphy / Flickr

A state loan board has approved $1 billion in loans to help with Detroit bankruptcy recovery. Of that sum, $325 million is allocated to bankruptcy exit financing that will also aid Detroit in restoring its credit rating. 

Terry Stanton from the Michigan Treasury Department approves of the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board's decision, calling it a “big step" towards having the bankruptcy "continue and come to fruition".  

This week, former Governor Bill Milliken knocked us off the edges of our seats when he started making candidate endorsements (Ok, maybe we weren’t at the edge of our seats).

But Michigan’s political watchers are always interested in who the state’s famously iconoclastic and moderate Republican Governor will endorse.

In 2004, Milliken endorsed Democrat John Kerry for President. In 2008, it was Republican John McCain. Although he withdrew it just a few weeks before the election.

Four years ago, Rick Snyder, in an effort to burnish his centrist bona fides, sought and received the imprimatur of Milliken.

And, now, this election-cycle, Milliken has endorsed Democrat Gary Peters for U.S. Senate and Democrat Mark Totten for Attorney General.

One has to wonder how the Republican base is going to view the fact that the current governor is the only Republican (at least so far in this election cycle) to get the Milliken endorsement.

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak doesn’t seem to mind. “He’s not relevant any longer,” Schostak recently told WJBK TV.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Democrats at the state Capitol are calling for a halt in new charter schools until there are rules that ensure more transparency and accountability.

They say the rules should require private, for-profit charter operators to reveal more about how they spend their per-student state aid payments.

“They’re not willing to tell us how they’re spending taxpayer dollars and, unfortunately, we’ve just seen too many cases of the temptation to make money getting in the way of providing the best quality education for our children,”  said state Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores.

mollyall / Flickr

The rights to drill under a landmark old-growth forest in northern Michigan are off the auction block.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creigh says the family that donated most of the land that makes up the Hartwick Pines state forest objected to allowing energy exploration under the pines.

“It was certainly a very generous gift from the family and, in my opinion, we needed to honor both the spirit and the legal requirements of the deed,” he said.

Democrats in Lansing are not waiting any longer to push civil rights protections for gays, lesbians, and transgender people.

And the fact that Democrats are now out in front, signals this is no longer about adopting a policy, this is now political.

For several sessions, Democrats have introduced legislation to add LGBT protections to Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. But last year they were persuaded to wait by civil rights groups who at long last saw a policy success in their grasp. That’s if they could get a Republican to take the lead (because, of course, the GOP runs the show in Lansing).

This week, however, those hopes essentially fell apart as prospective Republican co-sponsors bailed, and GOP leaders put unacceptable conditions on taking up the bill.

Now, the sole, lonely Republican publicly backing LGBT rights in the civil rights law, says he has not given up. “We’re still working and talking with colleagues and educating,” said Republican state Representative Frank Foster. Interestingly enough, as we talked about last month on It's Just Politics, Foster lost his primary in August to a more socially conservative Republican. There's continued debate over whether or not  his loss was do in part because of his support for adding LGBT rights to Elliott-Larsen.

morgueFile

Michigan’s top health official says parents who want to opt out of vaccinating their children should first have to be counseled about the risks.

Michigan has one of the highest rates of parents who opt out of vaccinating their childen for preventable diseases such as mumps and measles.

Michigan Department of Community Health Director Jim Haveman says too many people are picking up “misinformation” on vaccines from friends, the internet, and celebrities, “and so they just say, ‘we’re not going to do it’ without thinking about the options and alternatives and dangers.”

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 2000.
Joshua Schwimmer / Flickr

The state of Michigan owns public parks, roads, buildings, and even some historic artifacts. Among those artifacts are the original architectural drawings of the World Trade Center.

This is a story of how the state of Michigan – its taxpayers – came to own the works.

Thousands of people visit the 9-11 Memorial in New York every day.

Children play by the fountain that surrounds the footprint of what once were the world’s tallest buildings. Some people take the time to read at least some of the names of the people who died here on 9-11.

Jenny Lee Silver / Flickr

Democrats in the Legislature say women should get 90 days' advance warning if their employers are about to drop contraception coverage from company-provided insurance policies.

The legislation is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case. The court said business owners don’t have to cover contraception if they have a sincere moral objection.

State Rep. Gretchen Driskell, D-Saline, says women deserve time to make other arrangements if that’s the case. She says birth control drugs have more medical uses than just stopping pregnancies.

sushi ina / flickr

The Michigan Treasury is working on a plan to let local governments use the state’s system to collect income taxes.

The idea was hatched initially to help Detroit recoup about $140 million in uncollected income taxes from people who live in the city, but work in the suburbs, says Governor Rick Snyder. 

“We were looking originally at doing it with Detroit, but as governor of Michigan, I want to look at it and say, how do we provide service across our state? So it could be for other communities, if they want to,” he said.

Pages