October 13, 2020

In states, cities, and school districts across the country, taxpayers are paying public employees to work exclusively for their private unions, instead of doing the jobs they were hired to do. And as a new Goldwater Institute investigative report out today shows, we have no idea how big the problem is because many governments don’t bother to track it.

In Money for Nothing: Taxpayer-Funded “Release Time” Gives Government Employee Unions No Work and All Pay, Goldwater Institute National Investigative Journalist Mark Flatten lays out a thought-provoking study of the prevalence of “release time,” a practice by which government employees receive their full salaries and benefits by working full-time on union business. For example, under release time, a teacher is paid not to teach, but to negotiate higher wages, participate in political activities, and attend union conferences. None of those activities fit the definition of a public benefit—the sorts of activities to which tax dollars ought to be supporting. What’s more, union officials typically do not even need to say what they are doing while on release time.

For his new report—the first in a forthcoming series looking at release time in America—Flatten analyzed the practices of 150 jurisdictions, three in each state, to learn about their specific release time practices, and he was able to document more than 400,000 hours of paid release time taking place every year. But this number does not even come close to the actual number of hours public employees expend on their union—because many governments simply do not keep track of release time hours.

“Of the 150 agencies surveyed, only 82 were able to produce data on the number of hours they allowed in release time, including 44 jurisdictions that reported zero hours,” Flatten writes in his report. “Even fewer provided cost figures. The rest generally admitted they do not track the hours and cost of release time, or said it would take extensive research to determine if the data exists.”

This lack of transparency should concern anyone who cares about responsible government: When government don’t track release time hours, it illustrates that there is no accountability for taxpayers’ hard-earned money. “Public dollars should be spent for public purposes, not activities that benefit private, special interests,” Goldwater Institute Direction of National Litigation Jon Riches said. “And taxpayers should not be forced to finance private labor organizations, particularly when those organizations engage in political activities, lobbying, and union recruitment.”

In addition to Flatten’s efforts in documenting release time, the Goldwater Institute is leading challenges to release time in court. This week, Goldwater will be before the New Jersey Supreme Court challenging a collective bargaining agreement that paid the salaries of two full-time Jersey City teachers who did not spend their days educating children, but rather performing full-time work for their union. The New Jersey Constitution says that public money can only be spent for public purposes. Additionally, Goldwater is standing up for taxpayers in Austin, Texas, where a collective bargaining agreement allows the equivalent of up to four full-time firefighters to be released from their very important jobs and instead go to work exclusively for their labor union.

You can read Flatten’s full investigative report here.

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