By now it is well-known that public employee contracts with generous wage and benefits are bankrupting state and local governments across the country and encircling the necks of future generations with an anvil of debt. What is almost completely unknown is that the hard-nosed union officials who negotiate lavish contracts for government workers are often paid to do so with taxpayer dollars.
That is part of a widespread practice called “release time,” in which public employees are paid full-time wages and benefits by taxpayers, yet they report and answer not to government officials (or taxpayers) but to their unions. In turn, release time can be used for lobbying, campaigning, soliciting grievances, union recruiting, and negotiating for higher wages and benefits—all at taxpayer expense.
The practice was exposed in a 2011 report by Goldwater Institute investigative journalist Mark Flatten. He found that the City of Phoenix’s seven public employee union contracts included 73,000 hours of release time, at a total cost of $3.7 million. Most other cities around the nation, he found, also have release time.
So does the federal government, which calls it “official time.” In 2011, taxpayers funded 3.4 million hours of union work at a cost of $156 million. Among those diverted to union work from their government jobs are 17 air traffic controllers—16 of whom are paid six-figure salaries to do so—a wasteful extravagance that came to light when air traffic controllers were furloughed as part of the Obama Administration’s response to the federal budget sequester. Since then, it was reported that part of the backlog in processing claims at the Veterans’ Administration is attributable to—you guessed it—union release time.
Release time is now under attack. After the report on Phoenix release time was issued, my Goldwater Institute colleagues and I filed a lawsuit called Cheatham v. DiCiccio, challenging the release time provisions of the city’s contract with its police union, the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA). We argue that release time violates the Gift Clause of the Arizona Constitution, which forbids gifts of public funds to private individuals, corporations, or associations “by subsidy or otherwise.” Because release time is so widespread, and because many state constitutions contain gift clauses, a favorable outcome in Cheatham could set a national precedent.
We chose the police contract as a test case for two reasons. First, that contract contains more generous release time provisions than any other in the City of Phoenix. Second, release time diverts scarce resources away from one of the City’s most important functions—public safety—to instead fund union activities.
Under the contract, six full-time police officers (who also happen to be PLEA’s top officials) are completely released from their police duties. They receive full-time pay and the same pension benefits as officers who risk their lives every day. Additionally, they receive guaranteed overtime from the City, as well as stipends and car allowances from the union. They report every day to union headquarters, they do not have to account for their time to the Police Department, and no one in the Police Department even knows where they are at any given moment.
Additionally, the union receives an annual “bank” of 2,000 hours that it can use to spring other officers from their police duties to perform union work.
In return, PLEA obligates itself to absolutely nothing. The union contends that release time contributes to a positive labor environment and that it provides valuable services such as representing officers in disciplinary proceedings. But in fact, the City has two officers on 24-hour standby for such “critical incidents”; and in other cities such services are paid for by union dues rather than taxpayer funds.
As for promoting good labor relations—well, maybe not. When Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia recently implemented a new police uniform policy, the union was so incensed that it solicited dozens of grievances challenging it. The City’s taxpayers will pay the costs of both sides in the resulting legal process. Release time officers, who refer to the chief derisively as “Danny,” discussed hiring a private detective to tail him and to “break it off in his ass” if he met with other unions. When the chief asked certain officers to wear portable video cameras, PLEA urged them to refuse.
At the Legislature, release time officers lobbied in favor of the controversial S.B. 1070 immigration bill, which the City opposed, so that again taxpayers were funding both sides. They also support union-friendly candidates and ballot measures on release time.
In spring 2012, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper issued an injunction against release time. Because some of the release time officers had been riding union desks instead of patrol cars for more than a decade, they had to attend police academy before returning to police duties.
But the contract expired a short time later, along with the injunction. When the City tried to roll back release time, or at least limit it to specified responsibilities, the union adamantly refused, threatening that its members would “torch this place” if its demands were not met. A new two-year contract, with increased wages along with continued release time, passed the City Council by a 4-4-1 vote, with the abstention counted as a yes.
Despite strong Republican majorities in the Arizona Legislature, efforts to curb release time are repeatedly blocked by House Speaker Andy Tobin and others because public safety unions are perceived to be Republican unions. (Release time for teacher unions, by contrast, was banned many years ago.) In addition to not being an especially principled position, it is factually wrong. Although police and fire unions do contribute to Republican as well as Democratic candidates, they also make large independent expenditures to elect Democrats and defeat Republicans. Thus Republican elected officials who support release time are enabling the use of taxpayer dollars to aid their adversaries.
Absent a legislative solution, the taxpayer plaintiffs again sought an injunction; and in April 2013, Judge Cooper granted it. She ruled that release time “diverts resources away from the mission of the Phoenix Police Department, which is the safety of the community,” and gives it to a private entity to use for its own purposes.
The decision is sure to be appealed. Astonishingly, the taxpayer plaintiffs are facing not only the City’s and union’s lawyer teams, but the usually conservative Judicial Watch as well. Although Judicial Watch has criticized release time in other contexts, it worked closely with PLEA to support S.B. 1070, and PLEA’s former president now serves as Judicial Watch’s regional coordinator. When the Goldwater Institute challenged PLEA’s cushy deal, Judicial Watch intervened to aid its ally.
But as more people learn about release time, it grows increasingly difficult to defend. Phoenix City Council member Sal DiCiccio voted for past union contracts without even realizing what release time meant. But since learning about it, he has become a fierce critic. “It’s shocking,” DiCiccio says. “Taxpayers should not be funding union activities. It should all come out of union dues.”
The unions worry that the taxpayers may have another silent ally: police officers and other public employees themselves. Curbing release time could lead to a proportionate increase in wages and benefits. How many public employees would willingly pay higher union dues so that some of their colleagues can sit at union desks, receive a double salary, and in the case of police officers, insulate themselves from the risks that otherwise would be inherent in their jobs? By clinging to taxpayer-funded release time, the unions are betting that few of their members would view that as a good investment. It’s an even worse investment for taxpayers.
The release time lawsuit has a long way yet to go. But the two injunctions are certainly promising. Like the vampire that dies when exposed to sunshine, so too does release time become more vulnerable as more people become aware of it and properly incensed by it.
More than half of unionized workers today are public employees. They already exercise outsized influence as they negotiate their contracts with fellow public employees. The taxpayers should not foot the bill for the rope with which the unions are hanging them.
Clint Bolick is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and also serves as the director of the Goldwater Institute Center for Constitutional Litigation in Phoenix. Before joining the Goldwater Institute in 2007, Bolick was litigation director of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest firm that he cofounded in 1991, and president of the Alliance for School Choice, a national nonprofit educational policy group advocating school choice programs across the country.