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

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

The state House has approved by a one-vote majority Governor Rick Snyder’s plan to expand the agency that’s supposed to turn around some of Michigan’s most-troubled schools. The Education Achievement Authority is currently running 15 schools in Detroit.

e-cigarettedirect.com

Governor Rick Snyder says he wants electronic cigarettes to be regulated in Michigan as tobacco products. E-cigarettes deliver a dose of nicotine to users in a mist. There is a bill in the Legislature to ban e-cigarette sales to minors, but would not tax them like cigarettes or subject them to other tobacco-related regulations.

The governor says it makes more sense to simply treat them as a tobacco product.

It looks like a referendum on the controversial issue of wolf-hunting is headed to the November ballot – again. This will be the second hunting-related ballot question (and, possibly, not the last) voters will decide in a little less than eight months.

The Keep Michigan Wolves Protected Campaign turned in petition signatures to the state Bureau of Elections just yesterday. It takes 161,305 signatures, and we can reasonably expect the campaign has enough names. Because, after all, they’ve done this before.

Most recently, just last year, when Keep Michigan Wolves Protected filed enough signatures to suspend and challenge the first Michigan wolf hunting law adopted after the gray wolf was taken off the federal endangered species list. That is the first referendum challenge and it is already on the November ballot.

But the Legislature, as well as Gov. Rick Snyder, would not be thwarted. They adopted a second law to allow wolf hunting (among other things), and that is the target of this newest referendum campaign.

endangeredspecieslawandpolicy.com

The campaign to repeal Michigan’s new wolf hunting law filed petitions today to put their challenge on the November ballot.

The Keep Michigan Wolves Protected Campaign says it has 225,000 signatures. That’s well over the 161,305 needed to qualify for the November ballot.

This would be the second hunting referendum on the ballot. The Legislature passed a new hunting law to sidestep an earlier petition drive and referendum.    

USFWS Midwest

The campaign to stop wolf hunts in Michigan says it has more than enough petition signatures to get a referendum on the November ballot. This would be the second ballot challenge to a wolf hunt because the state’s first wolf hunting law was blocked by a petition challenge that will also go before voters in November.

The Legislature got around that by passing a new law that’s the target of this ballot drive.

Jake Neher / MPRN

The Legislature has approved a mid-year budget bill that includes $215 million for roads. It now goes to Governor Rick Snyder.

State Representative Joe Haveman chairs the House Appropriations Committee. He says a lot of the money will go to reimburse local governments for money they’ve already spent clearing streets and patching potholes.

There was an interesting article this week in The New York Times with a strong focus on politics in Michigan. It dealt with a particular aspect of the Democratic Party’s trouble winning in off-presidential years: the coveted white male voter. Yes, working class, high school-educated, married white men are wanted.

Republicans, in fact, have relied on dominance among white males to win elections for many, many years now. And a lot has been made of the fact that right now Republicans are facing big troubles winning over minority voters - African American, Hispanic - as well as immigrants and single women, a weakness that Democrats have been able to use.

But Democrats have been, for many years, losing the white male vote. Remember the Reagan Democrats? White, blue collar, many of them union members, with a strong presence in southeast Michigan and, over time, they stopped being Reagan Democrats and just became Republicans.

Exit polls from The Washington Post show President Obama lost white voters by 20 points in 2012 to Mitt Romney, the largest losing margin among whites in 30 years. Now, of course, every election is different. We know not as many voters will cast a ballot in 2014 as 2012 because it’s a midyear election when the presidential race isn’t on top of the ballot which creates, in turn, less voter excitement.

Lauri Rantala / Wikimedia Commons

There’s a movement in Lansing to regulate the sale of electronic cigarettes. The smokeless devices deliver a nicotine-laced mist that users inhale. The effort has been slowed by a disagreement. It’s about whether e-cigarettes should be regulated and taxed like tobacco, or separately.

We are one week, halfway through, the trial in federal court in Detroit centering on the challenge to Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The arguments are supposed to go on for another week, and then we’ll wait for the judge’s decision. But the case’s mere existence, the fact that it’s occurring, is having an effect on the political landscape in Michigan.

And, it should be noted that these hearings are not taking place within a vacuum. Just this week we saw two more gay marriage rulings. Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage was struck down and Kentucky was ordered to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

There is also another federal case underway here in Michigan that is challenging the state’s refusal to allow live-in partner benefits for public employees. It’s the mechanism that was created to allow same-sex couples to use their benefits to cover partners and children who would otherwise be denied coverage under Michigan’s marriage amendment, approved by voters in a statewide election 10 years ago.

MichigansChildren / YouTube

The list of Michigan school districts that have budget deficits is shrinking, and more districts are digging out of debt. That was the report today from the state Department of Education to lawmakers.

There are 46 districts on the deficit list today, compared to 50 at the end of last year.

“I’m encouraged that we’re trending in the right direction as far as the number of schools heading into deficit and the number of schools heading out of deficit,” said State Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, who chairs the Senate K-12 budget subcommittee.      

Salt trucks
Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

Lawmakers in the state House want to more than double the amount of emergency money for Michigan roads being ripped apart by nasty winter weather.

Last week, the state Senate approved $100 million to help fix potholes and plow roads. On Wednesday, a state House panel added another $115 million dollars for roads to the bill.  

“I think people are going to look at that and say that’s the way we’re giving back to the public – better roads as quickly as possible, a lot of it going to locals,” said Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

DeBoer Rowse Adoption Legal Fund

Michigan’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage is now on trial before a federal judge.

Ahead of opening arguments today, demonstrators supporting and opposed to the gay marriage ban in front of the courthouse as April DeBoer and Jayne Rouse showed up with their attorneys. DeBoer says they initiated the lawsuit so she and her partner could adopt the children they’re already raising together.

A political controversy in Lansing that just won’t die is back: auto no-fault insurance. There is yet another Republican effort to muscle through an auto no-fault overhaul, this time being led by state House Speaker Jase Bolger.

There’s a lot in this proposal, released just yesterday, but one of the main things is a cap on the state’s currently unlimited medical benefits if you are injured in a crash. Under the Bolger plan, these benefits would top out at $10 million. Other parts of the proposal include limits on hospital fees and payments for in-home care, incentives to avoid litigation, and a guaranteed rate rollback in the first two years of coverage.

Essentially, there is something in this plan for all of the special interests that have a stake in the auto no-fault system – hospitals, insurance companies, trial lawyers – to dislike. But, Bolger says, bring it on.

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At the state Capitol, House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, says he still hopes to get an overhaul of Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law through the Legislature this year.  He rolled out a new plan to end Michigan’s unlimited lifetime medical benefits coupled with the promise of a rate reduction.

“We do seek to ensure more drivers, make our auto insurance more affordable,” said Bolger at a news conference to announce the proposal.

Village hopes a private prison brings jobs, money
Flickr user Still Burning / Creative Commons

Former Michigan Gov. William Milliken says more than 350 prison inmates sentenced to life without parole as juveniles deserve a chance at freedom. Milliken – along with more than 100 law school deans and retired judges and prosecutors – filed a brief today with the state Supreme Court.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The campaign to raise Michigan’s minimum wage will now begin collecting signatures.

A state panel gave the petition campaign the OK to go ahead. The Board of State Canvassers said the petition complies with the law, and now the campaign has until mid-May to collect 258,000 valid signatures. That would put the question to the Legislature. If lawmakers don’t adopt it, then it would go on the November ballot.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

A new round of harsh winter weather is on the way. Snow, rain, and freezing rain are all part of the forecast for the Lower Peninsula, and the Upper Peninsula could be in for a blizzard.

Dealing with this year’s record and near-record cold and snow is already busting budgets as overtime, equipment, and supply costs are going higher than planned.

“This is a record winter in terms of cold, snow and we still have more to come,” said Gov. Rick Snyder.  

flickr Kate Gardiner

State lawmakers say they’re concerned about the time and expense of plans to keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. And some experts say it’s time to plan for the worst.

State invasive species experts say Michigan does not have the luxury of waiting for a final plan to ensure Asian carp don’t infest the Great Lakes and upset the food chain. 

This week on It’s Just Politics: a couple of interesting events of which we’re taking note. The first item out of D.C., where the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this week quickly and quietly approved an increase to the nation’s debt ceiling. No big arguments. No conditions. Which is an anomaly. Raising the debt ceiling has become a battle over the nation’s fiscal soul.

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.

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