AUGUST 12, 2015

Goldwater Institute Lawsuit Ends Taxpayer-funded Union Work

Court victory ends practice that costs taxpayers millions each year

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PHOENIX—In a win for taxpayers, today the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that government employees cannot be paid their government salary and sent to work for their 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 puts an end to the practice.

“Today the Arizona appeals court ruled that cities can’t spend taxpayer money and get nothing in return,” declared Clint Bolick, the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute. “Hopefully this will put an end, once and for all, to this huge and widespread taxpayer scam.”

The Goldwater Institute originally discovered this illegal 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.

Release time violates an Arizona constitutional provision that requires the government to only spend money on things that benefit taxpayers. In this case, the benefit was going to private labor unions, not taxpayers. In striking down the practice, the Court of Appeals wrote, “release time provisions do not obligate PLEA to perform any specific duty or give anything in return for the release time, meaning the City receives no consideration…for its expenditure.”   

The Goldwater Institute also won in Superior Court, but the government and government unions appealed their losses.

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. 

“This just adds insult to injury,” said Bolick. “Not only were taxpayers being forced to fund private labor union activity, it was activity that was purposely aimed at undermining the safety of Phoenix residents and the operations of the police department. That’s not only illegal, it’s outrageous.” 

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 in Idaho, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. 

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