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 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. 

We’re into the 2013 winter holiday season, which means we’re just a few weeks away from 2014 and a new round of big statewide elections.

That includes Governor Rick Snyder’s reelection bid -- which isn’t quite “official” yet, despite an active campaign committee, ads, and political consultants.

Still, it’s good to be a Republican governor these days. The presidential race is in the rearview mirror, the economy’s ticking up slowly, and people are looking at Washington and seeing nothing but gridlock and dysfunction.

But Democrats still see opportunity for putting one of their own into the governor’s office in Michigan, as well as eight other states that President Obama carried in 2008 and 2012. Politico says the Democratic Governors Association has secured a commitment from President Obama to fundraise, campaign, and provide material support to help pick up those states.

Rick Pluta / Michigan Public Radio

Abortion rights advocates were at the state Capitol to ask lawmakers to sit on petition-initiated legislation, which would send the controversial measure to the ballot.

The petition-initiated bill would require consumers who want abortion coverage to buy an additional insurance policy.

“Our folks will be out there and letting legislators know that this is a vote that they will not forget, that this is something that we will remember in the next election,” said Meghan Hodge Groen is with Planned Parenthood.

The federal judge who allowed Detroit to proceed into bankruptcy also upheld Michigan’s emergency manager law as part of the decision. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes said the law is constitutional, and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr was legally named to run the city.

If Rhodes had ruled otherwise, the bankruptcy could have been derailed. The legal challenge said the state has no right to override the authority of local elected officials.  

Wikimedia

The United States Supreme Court will hear today in a fight over a tribal casino in a small, northern

Michigan town. But there’s more than a casino at stake. The case revolves around the sovereign right of tribal governments to be immune from lawsuits.

The Bay Mills tribe wants to open a casino more than 100 miles from its reservation in Chippewa County in the eastern Upper Peninsula. The state of Michigan says it can’t, and sued in federal court to stop it.

beautifulhustle.com

Casinos operated by six Native American tribes in Michigan will continue to operate even though the gaming compacts that allow them expire this weekend.    That will gives the state and the tribes more time to negotiate new compacts.

The agreements were originally made 20 years ago.

John Wernet is the legal counsel for the Sault Sainte Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.   He says casinos are a critical source of revenue for the tribes.

This week, on our tryptophan recovery edition of It’s Just Politics, we’re talking money: salaries, wages, and how they’re becoming an issue in the campaign for governor.

Last week, gubernatorial-hopeful and former Democratic Congressman Mark Schauer, called for an increase in the state minimum wage. Schauer wants to increase the rate to $9.25 an hour over three years.

And, like we talked about last week - this is a subtle twist, not just hammering Governor Rick Snyder over his support for a pension tax, and school funding, but trying to give voters something to support, not just be against.

But giving voters things to be against is still an important part of any campaign narrative, and this week, for Democrats and Mark Schauer it was all about serendipity; a nexus of timing and opportunity.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a judge can ignore part of a state law that limits what a jury can consider as part of a criminal case.

The defendant in the case was charged with reckless driving that caused a fatality. His lawyer asked the judge to order the jury to consider a lesser charge. The judge agreed, even though state law specifically doesn’t allow that. The judge said the law violates the state constitution, and its separation of powers doctrine.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Judge John O'Meara's order says the state has until January 31st to send him a plan for how it plans to deal with those inmates sentenced as juveniles to life in prison.

It must ensure every inmate sentenced to mandatory life as a juvenile has a "fair, meaningful, and realistic" opportunity for parole.

State Attorney General Bill Schuette has argued a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down Michigan's juvenile lifer law and others like it should only apply to current and future cases.

Schuette could try to appeal Judge O'Meara's order.

Putative Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer rolled out his proposal this week to raise Michigan’s minimum wage to $9.25 over three years; which, as of right now, would make it one of the highest state-mandated minimum wage in the nation.

That’s sparked a debate over the efficacy of the minimum wage – does it encourage prosperity by pushing more money into the economy? Or does it stifle hiring and job creation?

But we’re here to discuss the red meat politics of the minimum wage. Mark Schauer’s announcement sets the stage for a classic class warfare throw down. So, instead of diving too deep into the policy side, let’s take on the political calculation that’s part of choosing that number of $9.25.

Polling shows big support nationally for a minimum wage of $9 an hour. There is some Michigan public opinion research that’s not quite as reliable, but still suggests it’s about the same - about 70 percent favor it.

But that support plummets as the suggested minimum wage goes up, especially above $10 dollars an hour. This shows the risk in using the minimum wage as a political wedge. To a point, it has populist appeal, but people still fear the consequences of setting wage floors. So the key is to find the sweet spot, and Mark Schauer seems to have settled on $9.25. (He says the policy-side reason is that number will make up for the erosion of its buying power over the last four decades.)

Which brings us to the next question: why now? Why not keep beating the Democratic drums - pension tax, school cuts, with a little right-to-work thrown in just to fire up the base.

The answer: Because the base isn’t fired up. And the most recent polling shows Rick Snyder expanding his lead over Schauer. No matter how much Democrats may dislike what they’re seeing in Lansing, a lot of them are still not warming up to Mark Schauer, who is low-key, to say the least.

The minimum wage is supposed to be a jolt to try to put some electricity into his campaign.

Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

Michigan is adding jobs, but the state’s unemployment rate remains stuck at 9 percent as more people compete for available positions. That’s according to the latest jobless numbers from the Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives.

Michigan’s unemployment rate was unchanged from August through October. The September and October jobs report was combined because of a delay in data-gathering caused by the federal government shutdown.

There has actually been a modest increase in hiring. But, at the same time, more people are looking for work.

SpecialKRB / flickr

A company run by the brother of Michigan’s budget director proposed $5 million dollar project that is now part of the state budget. And his company is now bidding to win the contract.

The contract is to run pilot projects to test privately managing public schools technology. The idea came from iSchool Campus, which is run by Budget Director John Nixon’s brother.

John Nixon says he told the governor’s office, the Legislature, and his staff that he would not and could not play a role in deciding which company gets the contract. And he says he’s made sure there is no conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict.

This week we saw yet another split in the Republican Party. But this intra-party fight had little to do with the usual Tea Party v. Establishment narrative. Instead, the imbroglio was over “issue ads.” Or, to be even more specific: disclosure of who is paying for issue ads.

Issue ads can sound and look an awful lot like campaign ads but they don’t directly or explicitly endorse a candidate by saying “vote for Candidate X” or “oppose Candidate Y.” It’s these magic little words – “vote,” “elect,” “support,” – that make a political ad a political ad.

But issue ads can say Candidate X did a horrible thing or Candidate Y is an amazing person. Take for example this ad from the 2010 Republican Gubernatorial Primary: “Raising taxes in this economy is crazy. But that’s what Congressman Pete Hoesktra wants to do… Call Congressman Hoesktra and tell him raising taxes is crazy.” Language like that makes it an issue ad. It says “call Congressman Hoekstra” but it doesn’t specifically say how to vote.

Jake Neher / MPRN

Republicans in Lansing are split over whether people who bankroll so-called “issue ads” should be allowed to remain anonymous. Secretary of State Ruth Johnson proposed a rule to require disclosure just hours before Michigan Senate Republicans voted to block her effort.

Capitol Building, Lansing, MI
Matthileo / Flickr

The Michigan Supreme Court has moved quickly to name judges to serve on a revamped Court of Claims to hear major lawsuits filed against the state. This comes one day after Governor Rick Snyder signed the court shakeup. And it caps a fast and controversial path to shaking up the court.

dugganfordetroit.com

Detroit mayor-elect Mike Duggan made his first visit to the state Capitol since he won last week’s election to run Michigan’s largest city.

Duggan says he was looking to build relationships and renew old acquaintances from decades working in politics and government.

But Duggan says he did not come with any specific requests for the city. One reason is he still does not know how much authority he will have.

Gov. Rick Snyder has signed a bill that will shake up pending litigation against the state, and legal challenges to some of his administration’s most-controversial policies. The measure moves the Michigan Court of Claims out of the Ingham County circuit. Instead, those cases will be handled by judges on the state Court of Appeals.

“I thought it was an improvement over existing practice, which is very limited in terms of the judges that represent the citizens of our state, so it’s an improvement so I signed it,” said Snyder, adding that one county’s voters should not be choosing judges who make decisions on big claims against the state.

“It really allows statewide representation in terms of judges across the state to hear cases as opposed to the 3 percent of the population that’s represented by Ingham County judges.”

But the new law also moves lawsuits challenging the state’s emergency manager and right-to-work laws out of a venue run by judges elected in a predominantly Democratic county. The Court of Claims was placed in Ingham County four decades ago.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Michigan officials hope to know by Christmas whether the Obama administration has accepted the state’s plan for extending Medicaid coverage to thousands of working poor people.

The state formally submitted its proposal to the federal government today.

The state wants waivers from the usual Medicaid rules so it can charge co-pays, set up health care savings accounts, and use financial incentives to encourage patients to adopt healthy behaviors.


Election 2013 is now in the history books. So, it’s time to do what all politicos like to do: look at the results and figure out what they mean as Michigan approaches Election 2014. Now, of course, one has to be careful about taking the results of low-turnout mid-term local elections and using them to predict what they mean for the future. But, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin the analysis…. starting with drugs.

 

Marijuana to be specific.

 

Ferndale, Jackson, and Lansing all voted on Tuesday to allow people over 21 to possess, use, and share an ounce or less of pot on private property without facing local criminal charges. It’s not a huge surprise that this was passed in liberal, progressive Ferndale. Lansing leans left so it’s also not a huge bombshell but one could make the argument that because it’s the seat of Michigan government, that is sends a message, makes a statement of sorts, about marijuana decriminalization. Most telling, however, is that a conservative city like Jackson approved the measure. It’s also interesting to note that these were commanding victories; voters in all  three cities approved the new laws by over 60 percent.

 

So, it begs the question: what’s next? Do advocates look to other towns - possibly Traverse City, Saginaw, Hazel Park, Mt. Clements - to push the question? Or, is it time to go statewide?

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

The Michigan Supreme Court will decide whether the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the state's juvenile lifer law applies retroactively to more than 300 inmates. The question is whether those inmates are entitled to parole hearings or if the decision only applies to current and future cases. 

The U.S. Supreme Court decision still allows life-without-parole sentences for minors. But it said courts have to hold hearings to decide whether there are circumstances like abuse or neglect, or whether a defendant was coerced into committing the crime.

The Michigan Supreme Court has also agreed to decide another question: whether minors convicted of assisting in a murder can be given life-without-parole sentences at all. The question is whether that violates the state constitution.

Courtesy of Bill Schuette

A state task force says a new approach is needed to address human trafficking in Michigan.

Among its recommendations: Minors who are sold for sex or cheap labor should not be charged with prostitution, delinquency or some other crime.

“A 15-year-old girl who is forced to have sex is a victim and not a criminal,” says state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who convened the commission. “Everyone needs to understand this.”

Advocates who participated say that means doing more than just changing laws. 

“How can we get them into that category of victim and out of that category of criminal?” says Bridgette Carr of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan.

user Marlith / Flickr

Voters in Royal Oak approved by a wide margin a local ordinance that protects people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Royal Oak is the 30th Michigan community to adopt an LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance. And gay rights supporters say that should put pressure on politicians at the state Capitol to do the same.

“I think as more non-discrimination policies are passed at the local level, that it does make quite the statement that are legislators are not doing the job that our citizens are expected of them,” said Emily Dievendorf of Equality Michigan.

There is an effort underway to add LGBT protections to Michigan’s civil rights law. But a bill to do that has not been formally introduced.

The Royal Oak city council approved the human rights ordinance last March. Opponents went to the ballot in in an effort to block it.

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