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

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.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette says he thinks the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually have to decide whether Detroit’s public employee pensions are protected from bankruptcy.  

Schuette is challenging a federal judge’s decision that cutting pension benefits is on the table as part of the bankruptcy.

USFWS

The state Department of Natural Resources says hunters are unlikely to bag the limit of 43 wolves before the season ends on December 31. In fact, it’s been two and a half weeks since the last wolf was taken on December 5.        

State wildlife officials say an extreme cold snap in the Upper Peninsula may be responsible. They say it’s also possible wolves have learned to avoid hunters.

(courtesy Michigan Attorney General's office)

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has delayed an order that Michigan make a plan to hold parole hearings for prisoners sentenced as juveniles to life in prison for murder.

A federal judge ruled last month that Michigan is taking too long to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court decision. It said automatic life without parole for juveniles is “cruel and unusual punishment.”  

Deborah LaBelle is the attorney representing a group of juvenile lifers who sued the state. She says the Sixth Circuit decision is a disappointment.

Peter Martorano / Flickr

A state board says the city of Detroit may borrow up to $350 million to pay off investment swaps that went sour. But the deal still needs the approval of a federal bankruptcy judge.

State officials say the deal to refinance the debt, if it’s approved, will free up money the city can use for police, fire, lighting and other services.

The international bank Barclays would lend the city the money to pay off two other banks.

But federal bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has not given his OK. He says the city should push for better terms to terminate the deal with Bank of America and UBS that turned out to be a financial disaster. It costs the city about 5% of its annual revenue, and state and city officials say it played a big part in driving Detroit to bankruptcy.

The arrangement was made in 2005, while Kwame Kilpatrick was mayor. If the banks don’t agree to renegotiate, the city could also try to challenge the legality of the arrangement.

The Republican angst over gay rights continues this week.

Driven and riven by the continuing commentary on the topic by Michigan’s Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema, in this case on AIDS and partner benefits. “Folks they want free medical because they’re dying between the ages of 30 and 44 years old… For me it’s a moral issue. It’s a biblical issue,” Agema told a local Republican holiday gathering last week in West Michigan (thanks to the Herald Palladium for audio of remarks).

And, as they often do, Agema’s comments have already gotten a lot of attention; inciting what has become a now-predictable ritual of condemnation from Democrats and Republicans. However, Republicans are complaining not so much about what Agema said but, instead, how he said it.

This is not the first time that Dave Agema has made comments like this. There is a history here. Agema has always made it plain he considers homosexuality to be nothing but a deviant lifestyle. His detractors say he’s a bigot. His supporters - and he certainly has them within the state Republican Party - say he’s a truth-teller. In fact, former state Representative Jack Hoogendyk, a prominent Tea Party leader, recently called him “a prophet.”

Rick Pluta / MPRN

The Michigan Civil Service Commission has delayed until mid-January a decision on new state employee contracts. The commission was supposed to have the final say in a fight over wages and benefits – especially health care coverage. But the commission deadlocked.

“Everyone should care about this because all Michigan citizens deserve to have decent healthcare coverage,” said Ray Holman from UAW Local 6000, which represents thousands of state foster care and human services workers. “And the thing about it is, right now, the state is sitting on a huge surplus.”

Unemployment line in California
Michael Raphael / Flickr

Michigan’s monthly unemployment rate is down, but it’s because fewer workers are competing for jobs.

About 17,000 people dropped out of the workforce and gave up their search for a job. That nudged the state’s unemployment rate down by two-tenths of a percentage point, to 8.8%.

There was a bump in manufacturing jobs last month, but that was offset by layoffs in hospitality and government employment.

Hiring is up, though, from where it was at this point a year ago. An additional 60,000 people are employed, mostly in manufacturing, business services, and healthcare. 

About 413,000 Michiganders are still out of work and looking. The state’s rate of unemployment and under-employment is 14.5%.

(courtesy Michigan Attorney General's office)

Governor Rick Snyder has approved a program to create a multi-platform tipline for students and others to report suspicions that a school could face a violent threat. It’s called “OK 2 Say” and it will allow for anonymous reporting via phone, text, e-mail or a message on a website.

“It means preventing school violence before it starts. It means a confidential tipline 24/7/365, an emergency response mechanism, kind of a sentry system, an early warning system,” said state Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose office will run the program.

warrenski / Creative Commons

Governor Rick Snyder intends to deliver the broad outlines of an energy plan for Michigan this week.

In a message delivered in November of 2012, the governor focused on energy efficiency. This year, the governor is expected to put more attention on renewable energy.

The state Public Service Commission released a report last month. It says Michigan utilities could afford to generate almost a third of their electricity using wind, solar, and other renewable resources.

What is it about Decembers in Lansing? Last year, it was right-to-work. This year, the controversy is over a petition initiative, a veto-proof law that will require people to buy separate insurance for abortion coverage. It could not be part of a basic health insurance package in Michigan.

It was an initiated law, put before the GOP-led Legislature by the very, very influential anti-abortion group Right to Life. As we’ve noted before on It’s Just Politics, Right to Life is virtually unrivaled in its ability to organize a petition campaign, and to squeeze votes out of the Legislature, especially when Republicans are in charge.

So, that’s it, right? Law is passed. All done.

Well, not so fast. Because what is begotten by a petition drive can be challenged by a petition drive. Michigan’s pro-choice movement thinks it can take down this new law with a referendum. In fact, meetings have started to try to organize a ballot drive.

Rick Pluta / Michigan Public Radio

Wednesday's vote by the Legislature to enact a law to require people to buy separate health policies to cover abortions may not be the final word on the question.

There are meetings underway to organize a referendum challenge. Abortion rights advocates are putting together a coalition to launch a petition drive. They want to challenge the new law with a referendum on the ballot next November.

splorp / Flickr

Law enforcement groups have joined the effort calling on the Legislature to slow down approval of a bill that would make it easier for phone companies to end traditional landline service, and switch customers to internet phones.

Robert Stevenson of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police says there are still too many problems with voice-over-internet ensuring reliable 911 service -- especially in rural areas.

Gov. Rick Snyder says state prisons are overdue for an overhaul. He told a graduating class of corrections officers today that the recession delayed critical improvements.

“It has be understood that when we go through tough economic times, people look for places to cut back,” Snyder said. “And, too often, legislators, other leaders in the state, and the public look to corrections as a place to cut back. That wasn’t a wise decision.”

The state has cut $250 million from the corrections budget since Gov. Snyder took office.

The governor says prisons need security upgrades and more cameras, among other things. He says the state must also invest in better mental health services. 

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