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

Deandre Windom / LinkedIn

A state financial review board gave one school district a reprieve, but steered the city of Highland Park back toward a state takeover.  Highland Park has been under some form of state receivership since 2002. The new review was required by the new emergency manager law.

Highland Park Mayor Deandre Windom said he still hopes to convince the state to accept his city’s deficit elimination plan.

“We’re going to sit down and explore our options and make sure we’re all of one accord and make sure the citizens of Highland Park are aware of us moving forward,” he said following the meeting of the state Emergency Loan Board.

The next step is for another team of financial experts to conduct a deeper review of the city’s finances before making its recommendation to Governor Rick Snyder. 

A state financial review board gave one school district a reprieve, but steered the city of Highland Park back toward a state takeover.  Highland Park has been under some form of state receivership since 2002. The new review was required by the new emergency manager law.

Highland Park Mayor Deandre Windom says he still hopes to convince the state to accept his city’s deficit elimination plan.

“We’re going to sit down and explore our options and make sure we’re all  of one accord and make sure the citizens of Highland Park are aware of us moving forward,” Windom said.

Governor Rick Snyder’s controversial NERD Fund will be shut down this week and replaced. Its official name is the New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify Fund. Governor Snyder used the fund to pick up costs he says should not be paid by taxpayers. But the governor would not reveal its donors, and critics say that created too many possible conflicts of interest.

The governor says it’s time to move on from that controversy. 

Photo courtesy of the Snyder administration.

An advisor to Governor Rick Snyder has been moved to the state government payroll and off a fund paid for by anonymous private donors.

The arrangement was both unusual and controversial. Richard Baird has an office very close to the governor’s and the job title “transformation manager.”

Until Wednesday, Baird was paid out of the governor’s private so-called NERD Fund. Critics said that could hide conflicts of interest. So now, Baird is on the public payroll.

Prospective brides and grooms in same-sex relationships could not be blamed for feeling jilted this week – not by their partners, but by the Eastern U.S. District Court in Detroit.

They expected this would be their day - that Judge Bernard Friedman would strike down Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage, and they would be among the first gay and lesbian couples in Michigan to tie the knot.

Instead, disappointment. Anger. Tears, in some cases. Big expectations dashed because Judge Friedman did not uphold or strike down the amendment, which was approved by Michigan voters in 2004 by a pretty commanding majority.

Michigan Radio

Updated 5:35 p.m.

After federal judge Bernard Friedman ordered a trial on the constitutionality of Michigan's ban on gay marriage, attorney Jay Kaplan called the delay a disappointment. 

Kaplan is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Project.  He says going to trial could work out better in the long run.

"He’s being cautious," Kaplan says of Friedman.  "Because if he renders a good decision, you don’t want to see that decision reversed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and having a factual record strengthens your opinion.”

Credit David Jesse @freephighered / Twitter

A crowd marched yesterday on the United States Supreme Court. The rally drew people from Detroit and other parts of Michigan.

They chanted: “What do we want?” “Affirmative action!” “When do we want it?” “Now!” and “They say ‘Jim Crow!’” “We say, ‘hell no!’’’

“They say ‘Jim Crow!’” “We say, ‘hell no!’’

The protest was aimed at Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in university admissions. It was approved by voters in 2006. And it took place as the Supreme Court heard a legal challenge to the amendment.

U-M

For the second time in a decade, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether Michigan’s university admissions policies are constitutional.

Ten years ago, the challenge was to the University of Michigan’s use of affirmative action to ensure diversity on campus.

Today, civil rights groups will argue against the state’s voter-approved ban on affirmative action.

Jennifer Gratz was here in Washington a decade ago.


The petition drive is the citizens’ direct route to changing laws. It’s part of the state constitution, Article 2, Section 9 (if you want to read it for yourself). The petition-initiated law is not subject to a veto by the governor. If the Legislature refuses to adopt it, the decision goes to voters as a statewide ballot question.

 

Right to Life of Michigan submitted petitions a week ago to initiate a law that would say people could no longer get abortion coverage as part of a basic health insurance plan. Consumers would have to buy separate coverage to get abortions paid for. The only exception would be an emergency abortion necessary to save a woman’s life.

 

“I had a similar bill that came to me that I vetoed,” Governor Rick Snyder reminded folks after the petitions were filed. “And that was the right answer in my view.”

 

Snyder vetoed this language when it was part of a bill sent to him last year by the Legislature because it did not include those rape and incest exceptions. That’s despite the fact that he has identified himself as “pro-life,” that is opposed to abortion, when he ran in  2010.

 

But not sufficiently so for Right to Life (which endorsed another candidate in the 2010 Republican primary.) Right to Life has a ready response when governors veto legislation it supports. So, once again, Right to Life launched a petition drive to enact as an initiated law what Snyder had vetoed.

John Ter Beek is a medical marijuana patient in Wyoming, MI
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The Michigan Supreme Court will hear a challenge today to a local ordinance that bans medical marijuana despite an amendment to the state constitution that allows it.

The city of Wyoming, outside Grand Rapids, enacted the ordinance three years ago. It outlaws any activity that’s already prohibited by federal law. It was directed at the state’s voter-approved medical marijuana amendment, which conflicts with federal drug laws.

The city says it acted within its authority because federal laws trump state laws.

Michigan Education Association / MEA

The president of the Michigan Education Association, Steve Cook, says the state’s new right-to-work law has not put a big dent in the teacher union’s membership.

According to Cook, who appeared on Michigan Public Television’s “Off the Record,” only 1% opted to stop paying dues during the dropout period. But while Cook says that shows most school employees still support the union, he argues the law made retaining members more expensive.

“Between the efforts of right-to-work and the efforts to collect dues, it’s been very expensive for the association,” Cook said. “It’s taken our focus off other things we would have rather been doing.”

The MEA, along with the American Federation of Teachers, are also defending extended contracts negotiated by some union locals that could delay the effects of right to work for years into the future.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Abortion opponents have turned in more than 315,000 petition signatures calling on the Legislature to place new restrictions on health coverage.

The new law would require consumers to buy separate coverage for abortions.

Abortion opponents say they want to make sure that abortion coverage is not automatic when people buy insurance under the new federal healthcare law. The petition-initiated law would require consumers to buy a separate rider for abortion coverage.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. So, in the midst of the partial government shutdown, it seems everyone has taken turns placing blame. It’s the Senator Ted Cruz shutdown, the Obama shutdown, the Tea Party shutdown.

The point here is not to own the shutdown, but to make someone else own it – to personalize it and dump it on the other side. We’re not talking about the policy side of it here, but how political operations are using the shutdown.

For example, here in Michigan, Democratic Party fundraising messages are calling it “Terry Lynn Land’s shutdown.” She has shut down the government, apparently, while still merely a candidate for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.

And, as the federal government grinds to a standstill, political fundraisers and message-makers are working overtime. This is an environment that is, as they say, target rich. There are people whose jobs are to take these moments that command people’s attention, incite passion, anger, frustration, and turn them into campaign cash and memorable political messages.

But when everyone’s talking about the same thing, it can also be difficult to break through the cacophony. And a lot of people seem to be working off the same talking points. Democrats have one set: critical services in peril; a country held hostage by the Tea Party. Republicans, another: Democrats did this. They won’t negotiate.

So, is it too soon to start thinking about Election 2014?

If you think so, think again. (Or maybe turn off your TV.)

“One Tough Nerd” is back on the air with a 60-second ad called “Michigan is Back,” and it’s basically the launch of Governor Rick Snyder’s campaign for a second term. That’s despite the fact that Snyder continues to insist that he’s not an “official” candidate and, furthermore, that it wouldn’t be a good idea right now: “When you have the official candidate kind of role, it makes it more confusing for people.”

He also said last weekend at a Republican conference on Mackinac Island that an early launch isn’t necessary because, unlike his political debut in 2010, people now know who he is and he doesn’t have to build name identification.

Yet, not even a week passed before the governor’s reelection campaign made what appears to be a significant ad buy, maybe more than $500,000. Not only is he on the air earlier than anyone else, he’s up four months earlier in the cycle than last time around when he was unknown.

So what gives? It’s interesting that a governor who makes a point of being a non-politician (or, as he prefers, “not your typical politician") is now cutting distinctions that only a politician would make – the kinds of fine-pointed legalisms that typically get teenagers grounded. Governor Snyder is a candidate and should be viewed as such.

We here at It’s Just Politics have never accepted that Snyder was committed to any course other than seeking a second term. And once again, his actions and behavior (as well as most of his words) have borne that out. So why would Snyder belie his own analysis by going up so early? Here are some ideas:

  • Habit. The last time around, Snyder also launched early. We were introduced to “One Tough Nerd” on Super Bowl Sunday 2010, when he was a largely unknown businessman running against some better-known established political names. It worked before.
  • Numbers. Most polls this far out show the governor running at least a little ahead of Mark Schauer - the almost-certain Democratic candidate. But, Snyder is still below that crucial 50 percent mark in every poll that we’re aware of. He’d certainly like to move that number up to a more-comfortable place, preferably before another poll comes out. That would appease Republican funders, too.  And this might be the moment, the public seems to be responding reasonably well to some of his very assertive actions in Detroit.
  • Image. If Rick Snyder wants to remain on top, he’s got to retain control of his image. And maybe the best way is to get out before the Democrats get busy trying to define and redefine impressions of “One Tough Nerd” in the public mind. (Democrats have already crafted their counter-persona, “One Weak Geek.”)
Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Jobseekers who refuse or fail an employer drug test would put their unemployment benefits at risk under legislation that has cleared the state House.

The measure would create a one-year pilot project to try out the idea. Employers would not have to participate, but could choose to report to the state if a job applicant either refuses to take a drug test, or fails one.

State Representative Frank Foster (R-Petoskey) says this would help ensure jobless benefits go to people who are serious about looking for work.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

A state House committee has approved legislation that would allow faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to handle placements for religious reasons. Instead, under the legislation, an agency that has an objection would have to refer a qualified family to an adoption office that would handle the placement.

Almost all adoptions in Michigan are handled by private agencies that accept public funding. Faith-based adoption services are concerned future changes to adoption policies – such as allowing same-sex couples to adopt – could force them to violate their religious beliefs.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

The first campaign ad in the race for Michigan governor will start airing tomorrow (Wed.). In fact, Governor Rick Snyder is launching his ad campaign before he’s formally announced he’s a candidate.

The statewide ad buy is modest, but it comes as Snyder continues to insist he should not be treated as if he’s running for reelection.

“I’m not an announced candidate,” he says. “I’m happy being governor and I’m focused on being governor.”

All Things Michigan / Flickr

About 1,500 Michigan Republicans were on Mackinac Island this past weekend. They were gathered for the state GOP’s biennial leadership conference, where much of the focus was on a reelection campaign by Governor Rick Snyder that has yet to be formally announced.

There were plenty of hints: Snyder basked in chants of “four more years.” He rolled out a campaign video. He invited people to sign nominating petitions to put him on the August primary ballot next year.

But when asked about a formal announcement on his reelection plans?

Flickr

About 1,500 Republicans are meeting on Mackinac Island this weekend to get ready for the 2014 and 2016 elections.

There are several prospective Republican presidential candidates auditioning here before Michigan Republicans. But the real focus is on next year and races for governor and U.S. Senator, among others.

“This kind of a huge pep rally for us,” said Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman. “We rally the troops, fire up the volunteers, meet the candidates, and get ready for the next election cycle.”

“Screw you as far as weak Republicans, dude… I said, ‘screw you’ as far as calling me a weak Republican.”

“Quote of the week” goes to state Senator Howard Walker in a throw-down at a Republican luncheon in northern Michigan. The “screw you” was directed at a Tea Partier giving grief to Walker over the recent expansion of Medicaid to the working poor in Michigan.

Senator Walker, liberated by the fact that he is not seeking reelection, spoke his mind - and the mind of many establishment Republicans - who are getting fed up with a Tea Party that says “no” to everything.

"No" to a new international bridge in Detroit.

"No" to the Common Core student measurement standards.

"No" to more transportation funding.

And, the list goes on.

Attorney General's office

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette wants the state to regulate and inspect drug compounding centers like the one that produced the medication that caused a nationwide meningitis outbreak a year ago.

At least 264 people were infected by an adulterated pain medication, and 19 died. Michigan suffered more casualties from the outbreak than any other state.

Michigan’s unemployment rate has edged upward for the third month in a row hitting 9%.

The number of unemployed job seekers in Michigan jumped slightly from 418 thousand to 425 thousand. That brings the state’s jobless rate back to where it was at the beginning of the year.

The increase was due almost entirely to job losses and not to people rejoining the workforce and boosting competition for existing positions.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder has signed an overhaul to Michigan’s hunting and fishing fees. The new law raises many license fees starting next March, but greatly reduces the number of licenses available for sale.

Erin McDonough is with the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. She says updating fees and streamlining the number and types of licenses was long overdue.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder says new FBI crime numbers show there’s still work to be done to make Michigan cities safer.

Flint and Detroit topped the FBI’s list of most-dangerous cities, which is based on 2011 data.

But Governor Snyder says the state’s been aggressive about public safety, especially in Detroit, where violent crime rates have improved.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Legislation to overhaul Michigan’s juvenile lifer law would not apply to inmates already sentenced as teenagers to life without parole.

The bills were adopted today by the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

The legislation is required because the U.S. Supreme Court struck down automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

James Sorenson lost his son in 2007 to a teenaged murderer.    He says any rewrite of the law should put the interests of the victims’ families ahead of teenagers who participated in a murder.

While Republicans wrestle with their Tea Party issues, Democrats here in Michigan are not without malcontents within their own coalition. And, with more than a year out from the 2014 election, that discontent could have some bearing on how the Ds do next year as they look to shift the balance of power in Lansing. We mention all this as the AFL-CIO labor umbrella group wraps up its national convention in Los Angeles.

The last two and a half years in Lansing have not been terribly kind to labor, capped last December when Michigan shocked the nation by becoming a right-to-work state. We’ll see how that law affects union membership in the coming year. It’s widely expected that union rolls - and revenues - will suffer as it becomes easy for workers to opt out of union membership.

Labor, still the core constituency of the Democratic Party, is looking to lawmaking and political action to accomplish what it got in the past through collective bargaining. But to do that, Democrats have to win elections starting next year. In this regard, history does not offer much comfort to Democrats. Michigan governors typically win second terms and the party in the White House typically gets clobbered in the mid-term election of a President’s second term.

Michigan Supreme Court
Michigan Supreme Court / court.mi.gov

The State Bar of Michigan says it’s time to end anonymous campaign spending in elections for judges and Supreme Court justices.

The State Bar is asking Michigan’s top elections official to require committees that pay for so-called “issue ads” to reveal their donors. That would require Secretary of State Ruth Johnson to reverse a 2004 rule issued by her predecessor that says the independent committees can keep their donors secret.        

Bruce Cortade is the president of the State Bar of Michigan. He says anonymous campaign spending undermines confidence in the legal system, and it's growing more common.

user: steakpinball / Flickr

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young says language should not be a barrier to justice. He says the wave of immigration has made the need to address the problem more urgent.

“We have a great deal more non-English-speaking citizens and non-citizens in our state that are involved in our legal system either the civil or criminal side of it,” said Young.

Young says advances in technology have also made interpreter services more available and affordable.  

The rule says criminal defendants and witnesses will never have to pay for an interpreter. In some cases, courts could try to recover interpreter costs from parties to a lawsuit.

Justice Bridget Mary McCormack helped draft the rule. She says some counties in Michigan already supply interpreters. Some, she says, are not doing a very good job.

McCormack says cost should not be an issue.

Jake Neher / MPRN

State employees are taking their right-to-work law challenge to the Michigan Supreme Court.

They hope for a decision that will reverse lower courts and say state civil service rules trump Michigan’s new right-to-work law.

State employees lost last month in the Michigan Court of Appeals, which ruled the right-to-work law applies to every workplace, including state offices.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Governor Rick Snyder’s administration and state employee unions are arguing about who should be in the room during contract bargaining.

It’s thrown a wrench into talks on contracts that will begin in 2015 for 35,000 union-represented workers including Department of Human Services caseworkers, environmental scientists, and corrections officers.

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