MPRN's Rick Pluta looks back at 2011

LANSING, MI – WKAR's Melissa Benmark talks with the Michigan Public Radio Network's state Capitol bureau chief and managing editor, about what happened in the state Legislature this year.

RICK PLUTA: I think the big trend story for 2011 was the division in the Republican coalition between the old school, Chamber of Commerce Republicans, who favor government restraint but still believe in certain kinds of investment in infrastructure, for example. And so, you saw Governor Snyder at odds with many Republicans over, for example, building a second international bridge in Detroit, one that would compete with the Ambassador Bridge.

But you also had arguments over road and infrastructure funding, that you had arguments over whether or not Michigan should create its own online computer exchange so that people and businesses could comparison shop for health coverage. And that's part of the federal health care reforms, what some people call Obamacare.

And all of those were issues where sort of the old school, Chamber of Commerce Republicans were saying, "As a practical matter, we should get these things done, even though they require some public investment." And then, they came up against the Tea Party Republicans, who said no for all of their reasons, that we should not participate in these federal healthcare reforms, that the government should not be paying for this new bridge in Detroit, that there are other options.

And at the same time, very often, pushed their own social agenda regarding things like some abortion issues, embryonic stem cell research, live-in partner benefits for public employees.

And there's this tension there. There's this tension there, where the old school Republicans are saying, "Why are we getting caught up in those conservative social questions, because they're not about improving the economy, which is the criteria upon which we will be judged in 2012 and 2014." And the Tea Party Republicans saying, "This is why we are here."

MELISSA BENMARK: So how do you see that then developing in 2012?

PLUTA: You know, it remains to be seen. It's really interesting. There was a time when the idea of a Republican lawmaker butting heads with his or her local Chamber of Commerce was really just unthinkable.

BENMARK: And not that long ago.

PLUTA: And not that long ago at all. And now you've got situations where local Chambers are saying, you know, "we want this bridge, we think that the health care exchange is a good idea because we don't get tossed into a federal bureaucracy if these health care changes go forward. And you've got Republican lawmakers looking, staring down their local Chambers and saying, "You know, I've got to stick with my Tea Party folks."

BENMARK: So, you see that intensifying in 2012? What kind of trends to you see happening, what issues do you see the Legislature dealing with in 2012, and what kind of predictions do you have for how those are going to get dealt with?

PLUTA: Well, the tensions are going to increase over the bridge in Detroit and the health care exchange. These are things that the Governor has said that he's not giving up on in the coming year, even though the Legislative leadership has said, "You know, it's not going to happen, at least not any time soon."

But on a lot of other things, you know, we saw controversies this year about extending the state income tax to pensions. You know, big cuts to schools and universities. And, you know, barring some unforeseen downward shift in the economy, it really looks like the Republican leadership is hoping that all that the mean, nasty, bloody stuff that got people so angry is behind them and now they can go to work on some things that will make people feel a little better about what they're doing and maybe sidestep a lot of those really heated political fights we had this year.

I mean, remember that, you know, we had, at the beginning of 2011, thousands of people coming and rallying against what the Republicans in Lansing were up to on the lawn of the state Capitol. A lot of that was inspired by what we saw happening in Wisconsin. But still, you know, it was getting people impassioned enough that they came out and did that. And I really think that Republicans are hoping we're not going to see a repeat of that in 2012. What Democrats are hoping for is obviously something very different.