It’s Time to Release Taxpayer-Funded Private Interests
By Tessa Cramer, Policy Intern
It’s always easier to spend someone else’s money. Unfortunately, this happens all too often when taxpayers are footing the bill. Currently, government employees are being paid to step away from their job responsibilities and take care of non-governmental, union duties while on the clock. In a practice known as release time, public employees use government resources to work on union matters while on the taxpayers’ dime.
States and municipalities do not generally track or report release time, but federal data and the number of unionized state and municipal employees suggests costs of over $1 billion a year. Taxpayers are paying for public officials to handle union matters while still paying their salary, benefits, and bonuses. Taxpayer-funded office space, supplies, and travel are being used to advance the goals of public employee labor organizations.
Although it is becoming increasingly common for public employees to track and report their time spent on union activities during the workday (mostly due to organizations seeking to track government spending), there is a lack of accountability and transparency that makes the misuse of public dollars so effortless.
Release time creates a situation in which government employees are rewarded for working for themselves rather than working for their community. In Phoenix, for example, there are seven unions that represent city workers and all of them heavily employ release time practices. An investigative report by the Goldwater Institute revealed that Phoenix taxpayers were paying upwards of $3.7 million a year for time that government workers were not working on their government jobs. In 2011, the Arizona Supreme Court, using the state’s gift clause, declared the practice of release time to be unconstitutional. Because the city was spending taxpayer dollars in a way that did not benefit the citizens it represented, it was decided that public employees could only do union work on their own time and their own dime.
State legislatures have the ability to ban the practice of release time by prohibiting public employers from entering into any employment bargaining with a public employee to compensate for third party or union activities. Forcing public employees to take care of private interests on their own time encourages government accountability, increases transparency, and ensures that taxpayers get the most out of every dollar.
While public employees have a fundamental right to associate and form organizations with other employees, these organizations should not be at the taxpayer’s expense. Public sector unions leverage political power for the exclusive sake of their members and therefore, are not acting on behalf of the public. Taxpayers should stop funding private interests in the form of subsidies provided through release time.