by Jon Riches
December 21, 2018

Firefighters have one important job: fighting fires. But in Austin, Texas, taxpayers will spend nearly $1.25 million to pay these frontline first responders to do another job altogether – lobbying state and local government all for the benefit of a private union.

It’s a practice known as “release time,” and taxpayers in Austin, represented by the Goldwater Institute, filed a motion today asking the district court to eliminate release time in the City’s contract with the firefighters union.  

Under release time, the City diverts full-time firefighters away from one of the most crucial services the City provides and places them instead under the direction and control of the Austin Firefighters Association (“AFA”), a private labor organization, for its sole use and benefit.  All while receiving full government pay, benefits, and retirement.  

Release time exists throughout Texas, even though it’s unconstitutional. In the City of Austin, three separate union groups – police, fire, and EMS – are funded by Austin taxpayers under release time agreements with the City.    

While on release time, public employees are being paid by taxpayers to lobby state and local governments, engage in partisan political activities, negotiate higher wages and benefits, solicit new union members, attend union conferences and meetings, and file costly grievances against the City.

This means that taxpayers are paying the government to lobby itself.  It also means that taxpayers are funding political activity with which non-member employees and taxpayers – who finance this political activity – may disagree.      

The cost is not insignificant.  Over the current collective bargaining agreement between Austin and the AFA, release time will cost Austin taxpayers nearly $1.25 million. Fortunately, the Texas Constitution prohibits this practice.  

Under the Texas Constitution’s gift clause, cities are prohibitedfrom granting public money to private individuals, associations, or corporations. In order for a government payment to satisfy this strict standard, the payment must be for a public purpose, the government must maintain control over the expenditures, and the government must receive fair value in return for public payments. 

None of these requirements are met with release time in the City of Austin.  

One of the key factors under the Gift Clause to ensure a private entity receives a return for public investment is that the public must exercise continuing control over the expenditure.  That is entirely absent in this case.  

For example, the AFA’s President is on “full-time” release, meaning he never reports for traditional firefighting duties.  Instead, he performs union work full-time.  During that time, the City exercises virtually no oversight over, supervision of, or accountability of the union president’s activities, who is at liberty to set his own schedule and decide his own duties.  No one in the City directs his activities on a daily basis or provides him formal duty assignments and no prohibitions are placed on his activities.  He does not report to the City; instead, he reports regularly to union offices.  No one at the City provides a performance evaluation for him, and he does not have a regular direct supervisor.  He cannot be selected as the union president by the City and he cannot be removed from that post by the City.  Yet, the AFA president is considered a “regular” city employee, paid as any other city employee.  

As this and other examples make clear, the purpose of release time is to advance the interest of the union, not the City or City taxpayers.     

Public money should be spent only for public purposes and not for the primary benefit of a private association. The Goldwater Institute, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the taxpayers they represent  are hopeful that this case will serve as the end to publicly-funded union activity. 

Read more about Pulliam v. Austin here.

Jon Riches is the Director of National Litigation at the Goldwater Institute. 

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