The Scrapbook has devoted plenty of column inches over the years to detailing the incestuous relationship between public employers and public employee unions. Every election cycle, union dues—paid with taxpayer dollars—go to Democratic politicians, who, when in office, thank their donors with immutable contracts containing generous wages and benefits. It’s truly a vicious circle. But even we were surprised when we found out just how directly money was being funneled from public coffers to private pockets through union contracts. So we’re happy to report that a practice known as “release time” just took a major legal hit in Arizona—one that could result in a domino effect across the country.
In Phoenix, some police officers don’t patrol their city streets or even serve citizens from behind a desk. Instead, they work for the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the police union—all the while collecting their salaries and benefits from city taxpayers. “Release time” provisions in their contracts allow these public employees to be released from their designated duties to perform services for the union, such as attending and managing grievance hearings.
Such clauses are common in labor contracts across the country, and this one wouldn’t have come to public notice either if, in the words of the Arizona Republic’s editorial board, city and union leaders there “had been a little less profligate with the taxpayer’s dollar.” Six officers work full-time for the union, with each getting 160 hours of overtime pay in addition. One works 500 hours a year as a union lobbyist—laboring on taxpayer dollars, we imagine, to get his bosses to fork over more taxpayer dollars to him and his colleagues on the force. Besides these six full-time workers, the union has access to 35 other officers it can free up from duties for an unspecified time each year. Some police officers haven’t actually been working for the public since the 1990s.
But no more—thanks to the good folks at the Goldwater Institute. Last week, Judge Katherine Cooper of the Maricopa County Superior Court ruled that release time violates Arizona’s constitution, which prohibits the state and any local government in it from giving a gift or subsidy to any private individual or group without receiving a lawful public benefit in return. The think tank filed suit on behalf of two Phoenix taxpayers in December 2011, obtaining two temporary injunctions that halted release time in Phoenix before they finally won the case—which, of course, the union plans to appeal.
The union was just one of the defendants, though. The city itself, along with its mayor and city councilors, also fought the suit—despite the testimony of one officer that when he was released from his duties, his beat went uncovered, leading to a “huge safety risk to the citizens of south Phoenix.”
But it isn’t just the citizens of South Phoenix who should be celebrating this victory. The judge indicated that her ruling applies to every union contract the city has signed. More important, as the Goldwater Institute observes, “Dozens of states have gift clauses enshrined in their constitutions, meaning the outcome of this lawsuit could spur an end to the practice throughout the country.”