(Bethany Blankley) – Association business leave costs local, state and federal governments $1 billion annually, the Goldwater Institute estimates.
The practice – also known as union “release time” and “union leave” – assigns government employees to work for a private labor organization at taxpayers’ expense. It is widespread, the institute argues, and is used in all levels of government contracts.
In 2011, the institute sued the city of Phoenix for using taxpayer money to fund police officers’ salaries and benefits while they were working for the police union.
The practice cost Phoenix taxpayers nearly $4 million every year, the institute said. The institute’s successful lawsuit against the city ended the practice in Arizona.
Bills to ban taxpayer-funded union release time have been introduced in Maine, Michigan, Nevada and Washington. Lawsuits challenging the practice have been filed in Idaho, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
In 2016, the institute entered its first legal challenge to the practice outside of Arizona and its first lawsuit in Texas.
Joining with the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), it sued the city of Austin, its city manager and the Austin Firefighters Association Local 975 (AFA) (Pulliam, et. al. v. City of Austin, et. al.) to halt the practice.
Since 2015, taxpayer-funded union and lobbying activities are legal in the state of Texas.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Rob Henneke, director of the Center for the American Future at the TPPF, said, “Allowing full-time public employees on the government’s payroll to work for a private union at taxpayer expense is even more egregious as the City of Austin’s proposed budget would increase taxes on all residents. All taxpayer resources should be put into services for citizens, not directed to the benefit of private entities.”
District Judge Amy Clark Meachum disagreed. Earlier this month, Meachum ordered the two plaintiffs in the case, Mark Pulliam and Jay Wiley, to pay $115,250 in attorney fees for opposing counsel and a $230,500 sanction for filing what the union called a “frivolous lawsuit.”
Henneke said he would appeal, arguing, “the trial court erred and that the amount the firefighters union requested was excessive and abusive.”
At issue before the Travis County District Court is whether or not the $1.25 million program through the city of Austin’s contract with the AFA violates the constitution’s Gift Clause.
In the latest round, the court removed the firefighters’ association from the case; the city of Austin and its city manager remain the sole defendants.
Andy Tate, senior public information specialist for the city of Austin, told The Center Square, “We welcome the court’s recognition that association business leave is an appropriate component of the negotiated labor agreement between the City of Austin and the Austin Fire Association.”
When asked what the governmental interest is for release time, he did not respond.
The Gift Clause prohibits the use of public funds for private enterprises and activities and the allocation of public funds to private special interests.
Instead of working full-time on city firefighting duties for which they were hired, firefighters who are chosen to work for the union are mandated to devote all of their time to “association business activities.” While doing so, they receive their full city salaries, benefits and pensions.