Court protects practice that costs taxpayers millions each year
PHOENIX – In a devastating loss for taxpayers, a split Arizona Supreme Court ruled that government employees can be paid their government salary and sent to work for a private union. This practice, called “release time,” can be found in contracts the government signs with various unions at the city, county and state level. Today’s court ruling will allow this wasteful practice to continue.
“Today the Court missed an enormous opportunity to vindicate one of the greatest principles in the Arizona Constitution—that the government should not spend public money for purely private purposes,” said Jon Riches, the Director of National Litigation at the Goldwater Institute. “This is a disappointing result for taxpayers and the taxpayer protections written into our constitution.”
The Goldwater Institute originally discovered this use of taxpayer money in 2011 and filed suit to stop the City of Phoenix from paying police officers their salary and benefits while they were working for the police union. Police officer release time was costing Phoenix taxpayers nearly $4 million each year. Since that initial discovery, the Goldwater Institute has found the practice is widespread in Arizona and across the country, including in federal government contracts. For example, while veterans in Phoenix wait an average of 115 days to get an initial appointment with their primary care provider, the Veterans Administration spends over $40 million a year on release time for VA employees. When the contract provisions are added up across the country, taxpayers spend over a billion dollars each year to pay government workers to clock in at the union desk, not to do the government work they were hired to do.
A trial court struck down the practice and the Arizona Court of Appeals agreed the practice was illegal, writing, “release time provisions do not obligate [the union] to perform any specific duty or give anything in return for the release time, meaning the City receives no consideration for its expenditure.”
During the prolonged legal battle, the Goldwater Institute discovered the police union was using officers on full-time release to threaten police strikes and work slowdowns and meet with candidates for city council to encourage them to support the ouster of the police chief. One even wrote in an email that police officers would “torch this place” if various union demands were not met.
“Release time is practiced at all levels of government across the country. And 47 state constitutions have a gift clause,” said Riches. “It is our hope that other state courts will vindicate the essential taxpayer protections that prevent the public from footing the bill for purely private activities.” Riches continued, “We also hope that policymakers in Arizona will now take notice of this taxpayer abuse and remove it from their contracts with labor unions.”
The Goldwater Institute has filed a similar lawsuit to block release time in Austin, Texas. Bills to ban taxpayer-funded release time have been introduced in Maine, Michigan, Nevada, and Washington State; and lawsuits challenging the practice have been filed by other taxpayer watchdog groups in Idaho, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The Goldwater Institute will pursue other cases and policy measures in states with release time practices.