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

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.

 “This is Rich Baird ... " was the opening of the voice mail message left by Gov. Rick Snyder’s right-hand man and “transformation manager,” Rich Baird. The message was for union leader Carla Swift. And after that intro, it got nasty.

“I didn’t figure you would pick up on this call. It would take courage to talk to me face-to-face. Um, number one, you’d better be careful. I may be suing you …”

The voice mail from Baird is a response to a column that appeared last weekend in the Detroit Free Press, where Swift said Baird and other members of the Snyder administration play by their own set of rules.

Back to Baird’s voice mail: “I am sick and tired of you people and your unbased attacks. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

user metassus / Flickr

A state elections board has approved ballot language for two referendums on state wolf hunting laws. 

Opponents of a wolf hunting season in Michigan say they will launch a full-throttled campaign to win the two questions on the November ballot. “No” votes would overturn two separate wolf hunting laws adopted by the Legislature. But another petition-initiated law recently adopted by the Legislature would allow wolf hunting once it takes effect in March. This third law aims to get around both referendums.

Rick Pluta / MPRN

Republicans and Democrats held their state party conventions over the weekend.

The GOP met in the Detroit suburb of Novi. Democrats were in Lansing. Their purpose was to nominate a slate of statewide candidates, and promote party unity going into November, and they succeeded. Partially.

The conventions’ legal purpose is to select candidates for the November ballot, but they’re also a chance to fire up the party faithful. And there’s always a goal of broadcasting the impression of an excited, unified party, and, frankly, to avoid big drama that makes big news.

It seems it’s not possible for an election campaign season to glide by without a debate over debates -- the one-upsmanship between various campaigns about who’s more willing to throw themselves open for an adversarial Q and A rife with drama and wonkiness.

Historically, the most memorable moments of debates are the human ones -- Governor Sarah Palin in the 2008 Vice Presidential debate asking then- Senator Joe Biden, “Can I call you Joe?” or Governor Rick Perry’s famous, fatal stumble in the Republican presidential debate in 2012 at Oakland University, forcing an embarrassing “oops” after he forgot the three federal departments he’d eliminate.

The public says it wants debates. Candidates say they’re anxious to debate. But in Michigan, so far, in 2014, we haven’t seen any debates scheduled in either the race for U.S. Senate or governor.

Democratic Senate nominee Gary Peters is certainly trying to make hay over the absence of debates. It plays into the Democrats’ narrative that Republican Terri Lynn Land is unprepared for the job. Mark Schauer, Democratic nominee for governor, is also pushing to share a stage with Gov. Rick Snyder.

The statewide Republican ticket lines up after Saturday’s GOP convention in Novi.
Rick Pluta / MPRN

Delegates to the Michigan Republican Party convention this weekend renominated Lieutenant Gov.Brian Calley to be Gov.Rick Snyder’s running mate. But he had to fight for the job.

Tea party convention delegates meeting in Novi tried to deny Gov. Snyder his choice as a running mate. They voiced frustration with the administration’s support for the Medicaid expansion and the Common Core curriculum standards.

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

Republicans and Democrats in Michigan will gather this weekend at party conventions to nominate candidates for statewide offices.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and Attorney General Bill Schuette are expected to be nominated for second terms at the state Republican convention in Novi.      

But it looks like there will be a fight over lieutenant governor. Gov. Rick Snyder wants the convention to renominate Brian Calley. But Tea Party activist Wes Nakagiri wants to deny Snyder his choice.

State GOP chairman Bobby Schostak says Calley appears to have the edge going into Saturday’s convention.

“I think that overall Brian Calley has been working very hard across the state to get the message across that he deserves to continue to be the lieutenant governor, and it’s going to be very hard to beat him,” says Schostak.

Democrats are meeting in Lansing this weekend. Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown is Mark Schauer’s choice for a running mate. Democrats are also expected to nominate Mark Totten for attorney general, and Godfrey Dillard for secretary of state.

The parties will also nominate candidates for the state Supreme Court and education boards. 

Sharon Drummond / Flickr

A state loan board will choose between two competing proposals to give a short-term bridge loan to the Detroit Public Schools. One is from the district’s emergency manager. The other is an alternative proposed by the school board.

The district is under the control of an emergency manager while it digs out of a deficit. The district’s teachers are opposing a plan to close 24 schools and cut their pay by 10%. This would be the second round of pay cuts for Detroit teachers.

Gov. Rick Snyder says the district’s troubles require tough choices.

Michigan Legislature
Michigan Municipal League

It looks likely there will be more Tea Party Republicans in the Legislature next year. And one of the likely new tea partiers in the state House says they may want one of their own to be the new Republican leader.

Todd Courser won the GOP primary in a very Republican-leaning seat. That means he’s probably likely headed to Lansing next year. And he says Tea Partiers in the Legislature will be looking for something different in the new House leadership team.

“What I would like to see is a vocal conservative voice that is willing to stand, really, and make sure that we’re moving legislation forward that actually meets the criteria of being conservative, and fits the platform of the party,” says Courser.

Courser was on the Michigan Public Television show Off The Record.

He says larger budgets, the Medicaid expansion, and the Common Core curriculum standards don’t fit that definition. He says the freshman Tea Party class in the state House might put forward one of its members as a candidate for House Republican leader for the coming session of the Legislature.  

 Natural disasters, like the rain and floods that pounded metro Detroit this week, present a unique challenge for chief executives like Governor Rick Snyder. Natural disasters are certainly not like the slow work of trying to mend an economy, for example.

With natural disasters, all of an administration’s emergency planning is stress tested in real-time with real-life consequences. Years ago, Governor John Engler said a big natural disaster is any governor’s worst nightmare.

And, like most things with government, there are political consequences to natural disasters. How, for example, the public measures the way a chief executive handles the situation.

Here in Michigan, with the November election just two and a half months away, this was an important week for Governor Snyder. Which is why, when the magnitude of what was happening in metro Detroit became clear, the governor cut short a trip to the Upper Peninsula - a trip that included a fundraising event in Marquette - and returned downstate to reassure people that he was aware and in charge.

His administration certainly did not want a repeat of last winter, when Snyder was excoriated for not, at first, being visible during a powerful ice storm that knocked out electricity to big swaths of the state. We should note as well, however, that the governor’s Democratic challenger, Mark Schauer, was also not particularly visible during that ice storm.

So, this week, Governor Snyder flew south by helicopter, surveyed the damage and talked to the media. It was this latter part of his trip - speaking on WJR’s The Frank Beckman Show - that the Governor tried for a little empathy. “I’ve been through a lot of things like that… We just recently had holes in our roof from storm damage to our lake house, in terms of, yeah, we have a vacation place, and I had a limb come down from holes in the roof, had water running through the place. Those experiences are not pleasant ones, and we had to take some trees down,” the Governor said, trying to go for the common touch, the ‘I feel your pain’ explanation.

Jeff Reutter / Ohio State University

Michigan environmental officials say most of the state’s drinking water is safe from the sort of contamination that forced the city of Toledo to issue a don’t-drink emergency order.

Tests determined water from Lake Erie was contaminated with microsystin toxin produced by a type of cyanobacteria. The bacteria looks a lot like pea-green algae growing in the water.

At high-enough levels, the toxin can cause health issues such as nervous system or liver damage.

Steve Busch is a state water specialist. He says about 34,000 people in southeast Michigan lost access to safe drinking water because they get it through the Toledo system, but he says many more could be effected by a more widespread crisis.

“We have about 100,000 people that are relying on drinking water from Lake Erie as a source itself.”

Busch says other Great Lakes are deeper and cleaner, and not as susceptible to problems created by the bacteria.

Gray wolves.
USFWS / Flickr

The Michigan Senate has adopted a citizen petition initiative to allow wolf hunting in the Upper Peninsula and overhaul wildlife management rules. It would let the Natural Resources Commission designate game animals, and make irrelevant two November questions before voters to decide the issue.

It cleared the Senate on a 23-10 mostly party vote.

The measure now goes to the state House, which could vote on it later this month.

*This post will be updated.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The state Senate is back in Lansing tomorrow for one day before resuming its summer recess.

It appears likely the Senate will vote on petition-initiated legislation to allow wolf hunting in Michigan, and give a state commission direct control over decisions on which species may be hunted.

The state House is expected to follow suit later this month.

The initiative is meant to circumvent two referenda on wolf-hunting laws adopted by the Legislature.

Rainbow trout at a Michigan fish hatchery facility
User: All Things Michigan / Flickr

​Environmental groups are asking the state to take back permission for a fish hatchery to expand its operations on a legendary trout stream. The operator has been given permission to raise as much as 300,000 pounds of rainbow trout in the facility. 

The complaint says there are not enough protections to ensure the Grayling Fish Hatchery won’t allow diseases and parasites to escape into the Au Sable River.

Marvin Roberson is with the Sierra Club.

“The permit doesn’t require those pools to be monitored to see whether or not fish or parasites or diseases are escaping from the facility, and we think it’s outlandish to say 'you don’t have to check to see whether those things are getting out,'” Roberson said.

A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Quality says the agency is closely monitoring the water around the hatchery, and will act quickly if there’s a problem.

 Here we are, trying to shake some more truth out of Tuesday’s primary results. And there is still at least one lingering result that has people continuing to wonder what exactly happened and why. And that would be Republican Representative Frank Foster’s primary loss to Tea Party challenger Lee Chatfield.

It’s not that people didn’t think a Tea Party win was possible. In fact, the Tea Party took aim at quite a few GOP incumbents over their votes for the Medicaid expansion and the Common Core education standards.

But every single other incumbent state lawmaker survived.

In Foster’s case, though, there were a couple of distinctions. Foster was identified by a political newsletter as one of Lansing’s most lobbyist-wined and dined. It’s never good when an incumbent is targeted as having “gone native” in Lansing or D.C.

Rick Pluta / MPRN

The future of Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is in the hands of a federal appeals court.

Michigan was one of four states arguing to keep their bans in place today before the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

If the Potter Stewart Federal Courthouse had a theater marquee, it might have proclaimed a full-fledged “Legalpalooza,” with six cases from four states playing in one marathon session. About a half a dozen people even spent the night outside the courthouse in hopes of getting a seat to the show.

user The Geary's / Flickr

There’s a hearing Wednesday in Cincinnati on Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban. The case is before the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A panel of judges will also hear arguments on same-sex marriage bans in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Tuesday may be primary election day, but the truth is we’re already off to the races. The voting has begun. Absentee voting. Absentee ballots are the first ballots cast, but the last to be counted on Election Day. And more and more they can make the difference between winning and losing.

That’s because voting absentee is on the rise in Michigan -- nearly doubled over the past 10 years. More than one in four (27 percent, to be specific) of the ballots cast in 2012 were absentee. And that’s why the smart campaigns focus early on absentee voters. They keep track of who requests an absentee ballot, and then quickly steer campaign propaganda in that voter’s direction.

It is also why the Michigan Democratic Party -- with an eye toward November -- has been quietly carrying on an absentee voter experiment. Voters in Detroit and Lansing, can now apply for their absentee ballots online.

Jake Neher / MPRN

Until recently, businesses in Michigan had to pay taxes on almost all their equipment. Not surprisingly, they didn’t like this tax.

The state Legislature has done its part to phase out the personal property tax, but the rest is up to voters when they decide the fate of Proposal 1 on Tuesday’s ballot.

Businesses pay the personal property tax on everything from the factory machines that build cars and trucks to playground equipment and changing tables.

Meet Jerry Grubb, who owns the Wee Discover daycare center in Waterford.

“Sixteen years we’ve had those tables and changing tables, and 16 years I’ve been paying personal property tax,” he says. He says the same is true for computers, desks, and the high-powered dishwasher that keeps spoons, plates and baby bottles clean.

“I pay tax when I buy it and I pay tax on it every year,” he says.

Grubb and other Michigan business owners say the personal property tax is not only unfair, and cumbersome to comply with, but it also discourages investment: buying new equipment and hiring more employees.

Well, irritated business owners got their wish this year when the Legislature adopted a plan to phase out the personal property tax.

markschauer.com

Democratic candidate Mark Schauer says he would come up with a road funding solution where Governor Rick Snyder and the Republicans failed. Schauer did not give specifics, but said he would do it without raising fuel taxes. It was part of an economic platform he outlined today.

It also includes boosting the state’s renewable energy, repealing the right to work law, and restoring the tax break for pension income.

Schauer said his economic plan would create tens of thousands of new jobs.

“By rebuilding our infrastructure, raising our renewable energy standard, tough ‘buy Michigan’ standards, by cutting taxes to retirees and working families,” Schauer said, “I think tens of thousands is a conservative estimate.”

Schauer said he would also ban for-profit charter schools and rely less on outside contracts for state services.

Governor Snyder says his policies are at least partly responsible for 250,000 new private sector jobs since he took office.

MichigansChildren / YouTube

There was a lengthy meeting today between the Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction and some of the state’s largest charter school authorizers. Its purpose was to review the rules to ensure the independent academies are performing as promised.

The meeting went on for about three hours. It was closed to the public, and there were few details made public. Some of the state’s largest charter authorizers, including representatives of universities and community colleges, were invited.

 There are some big stakes in the primary elections less than two weeks away, and fierce fights over congressional and legislative nominations are getting a lot of attention.

Not that it’s likely to boost what is usually anemic turnout in the primaries, and that’s despite the reality that most seats are so firmly partisan that the primary is actually the decisive election that really determines who goes to Lansing or Washington.

Like other politicos, we’ve paid a lot of attention to the face-off between the Republican establishment and the GOP’s Tea Party wing. And while that fight is playing out in some state House and Senate races, and some big Congressional races, it’s also playing out locally. Very locally.

We’re talking about the humble precinct delegate.

James Marvin Phelps / Flickr

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and the state Department of Environmental Quality have sent a warning letter to Enbridge Energy. It says the company has to do a better job of securing an oil pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac.

“We just want to make sure that this pipeline’s going to be safe," said Dan Wyant, director of the DEQ. He says a leak in the pipeline would have implications throughout the Great Lakes.

“A lot of concern about this pipeline. Sixty years it’s been safe, but we’re in a position, Attorney General Schuette, I as the chief environmental officer of this state, to ensure we don’t have a problem on this pipeline,” he said.

Enbridge quickly responded it would add more anchors to its pipeline. Four years ago, a break in an Enbridge pipe dumped about a million of gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.

Photo courtesy of Michigan's Attorney General office / michigan.gov

A report by the Michigan Attorney General's office has found both human and technology failures played a part in the prison escape of a convicted murderer.

Michael Elliot slipped out of the Ionia Correctional Facility last February 2 by crawling under fences during a heavy snowfall. He wore white clothes to blend into the snow. He was captured about 24 hours later in Indiana.

Cue the James Bond theme as we take up electoral espionage. We’re talking campaign black ops. Political spying.

We learned this week that Republicans here in Michigan sent two young operatives equipped with a tiny video camera in a pair of glasses to infiltrate a Mark Schauer for Governor campaign event -- looking for whatever they might find. And what did they get? Found out.

Our ace operatives bungled the job. Dropped the disc with the video where it was found by Democrats. Who, then, made it public, including their brief conversation with Dem lieutenant governor candidate Lisa Brown.

Republicans didn’t deny the operatives were theirs.

Democrats and the Schauer campaign cried foul calling it sneaky, dirty tricks. They got some newspaper headlines. Effective messaging helped along by the fact that it fit did neatly into a narrative courtesy of some missteps -- or what seemed to be missteps -- by Governor Rick Snyder’s campaign.

James Fassinger Stillscenes

State environmental officials have rejected a plan to allow piles of petroleum coke to be stored at a location along the Detroit River.

Pet coke is an oil refinery by-product that’s used as an industrial fuel.

The state Department of Environmental Quality said the proposal by Detroit Bulk Storage did not address problems with blowing black dust.

Complaints about dust plumes were among the reasons why Detroit ordered the open piles of pet coke removed from a riverfront location in the city.

Member of the public with a “No Fracking” sticker on her clothes as she testifies before a panel of environmental regulators.
Rick Pluta

State environmental regulators will put the finishing touches on new rules regarding “fracking” now that public hearings have wrapped up. They expect to have the new rules adopted by the end of the year, but the state’s rules may not be the final word on the controversial drilling process

“Fracking” is a drilling method that pushes water and chemicals into wells to force out oil and gas deposits.

Daniel Parks / Flickr

An association of non-union construction companies has asked the state Supreme Court to strike down local prevailing wage laws. The Associated Builders and Contractors says a state law preempts the ordinances.

Nearly two dozen Michigan communities have their own prevailing wage ordinances. They’re supposed to ensure that workers on city-financed projects are paid something close to union wages.

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