December 16, 2020

It seems hard to believe: Government employees are getting paid not to do the job they were hired to do, but to work full-time for private labor unions, all on taxpayers’ dime. But not only is it happening—it’s incredibly common in cities and school districts across the country. Now, a series of comprehensive investigative and policy analysis reports from the Goldwater Institute has revealed that the practice—known as release time—is even more pervasive that we can know. But the Goldwater Institute has a solution.

Under release time, which occurs on the local, state, and federal level, government employees are “released” from the jobs they were hired to do and instead work full-time for labor unions, while still receiving their full salary and benefits paid for by taxpayers. That means that a teacher on release time does not spend their time educating students, and a firefighter on release time doesn’t spend their time fighting fires. Instead, they spend their time negotiating higher wages, participating in lobbying and political activities, recruiting new union members, attending union conferences and seminars, and other activities that advance the union’s interest instead of the public interest. (Read more about release time here.)

But just how widespread is release time? Goldwater Institute National Investigative Reporter Mark Flatten surveyed 150 jurisdictions across America—three from every state—to try to get a clearer picture of what release time in America really looks like. Based on Flatten’s investigative research, here is what we do know about release time in America:

  • More than 400,000 hours of paid release time annually can be documented.
  • 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. 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.
  • The city of Phoenix is by far the most generous with release time among those jurisdictions surveyed that were able to fully document the hours and cost. Arizona’s capital city allowed 67,511 hours of paid union release time at a cost of about $3.7 million last fiscal year.
  • Among the agencies that could not or would not provide data on hours and cost, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida is the biggest supplier of paid union release time, based on the language in union contracts. The district allows about 22,500 defined hours annually. A single provision in the contract with the United Teachers of Dade allows 2,500 days of paid release time. That amounts to about 20,000 hours, based on an eight-hour day.
  • No level of government—state, city, or school district—reported any paid release time in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, or West Virginia. (The fact that these jurisdictions reported no release time negates the argument that release time is needed for government to function.)
  • The federal government allows about 3.6 million hours of release time (known as “official time” on the federal level) every year. That adds up to a $177 million bill for taxpayers.

And it’s very possible that release time is about to receive greater protections than it’s had in recent years. In May 2018, President Trump issued an executive order curbing release time, but President-elect Biden is expected to repeal the order soon after taking office in January 2021.

So what can be done to fight back against this violation of taxpayers’ rights? As Goldwater Director of National Litigation Jon Riches outlines in a new policy brief about release time, that fight must happen on two fronts—through litigation and legislation. The Goldwater Institute is currently standing up for taxpayers through lawsuits challenging release time in Arizona, Texas, and New Jersey. And because release time “is an issue of statewide concern that involves good government, taxpayer protection, and the rights of public employees,” Riches writes that it is an appropriate topic for legislative action. “Lawmakers at all levels should pursue policy reforms that prohibit public expenditures on activities that advance private, special interests, including those of private labor unions.”

Check out our full series of investigative work and policy analysis on release time here. You can also go here for a clickable map showing how jurisdictions in every state track—or don’t track—release time.

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