Taxpayers on hook for union workers' salaries

There are a number of people in the city of Austin, Texas, who are paid fulltime salaries by taxpayers to run their private union and handle its business.

That, according to the Goldenwater Institute, is just wrong.

“Under the Texas Constitution, the government is prohibited from spending public money for purely private purposes,” said Jon Riches, director of national litigation for the organization. “With release time, Austin taxpayers are required to foot the bill for the activities of a private union.

“This is an abuse of tax dollars and violates Texas law,” he said.

The conflict arose because the city and the Austin Firefighters Association, Local 875, reached an agreement for the city to pay a number of firefighters full-time salaries while they are on “release time,” also known as “association business leave,” or “union leave.”

It simply allows certain firefighters to draw a full salary from the city but spend their time pursuing union work.

The institute has filed a legal action challenging the practice, arguing it “violate the Texas Constitution ‘gift clause’ provision that prohibits government from giving taxpayer funds to private entities without a public purpose.”

Robert Henneke, the general counsel for the Center for the American Future, said, “Allowing fulltime public employees on the government’s payroll to work for a private union at taxpayer expenses is even more egregious as the city of Austin’s proposed budget would increase taxes on all residents.

“All taxpayer resources should be put into services for citizens not directed to the benefit of private entities.”

The Goldwater Institute originally discovered the illegal use of taxpayer money in 2011 in the city of Phoenix and filed a lawsuit to stop it.

There, police officers were collecting some $4 million a year from taxpayers in such “release time” activities.

The lawsuit was successful and the practice stopped.

“Since that initial discovery, the Goldwater Institute has found the practice is widespread across the country, including in federal government contracts. For example, while some military veterans wait an average of 115 days to get an initial appointment with their primary care provider, the Veterans Administration spends over $40 million a year on release time for VA employees,” the organization reported.

“When release time contract provisions are added up across the country, taxpayers spend over a billion dollars each year to pay government workers to clock in at the union desk, not to do the government work they were hired to do.”

Several states now have introduced bans on the practice.

The Austin deal allows the president of the local union to use up to 2,080 hours of release time per year. At 40 hours of work per week, that’s 52 weeks, meaning that person can essentially be a full-time worker for the union, at taxpayer expenses.

It allows the union to consume up to 6,600 hours a year, for all officials to be paid by taxpayers while doing union work.

“A payment by a political subdivision, including a municipality, of the state of Texas is proper under the Gift Clause only if: first, the expenditure serves a public purpose, and second, the expenditure affords a clear public benefit in return.”

The union, however, is not required to provide “any direct benefits” to the city in return for the subsidy.

In a description the legal team explained: “Imagine if your city council contacted a local Walmart and offered them fulltime city employees to use however Walmart wished – as checkout clerks, greeters, stockers. Walmart makes the decision, and the employees wear Walmart uniforms, report to Walmart management, and work for Walmart’s benefit.

“But the city claims that they’re still city employees, and pays them salaries out of the government’s treasury, including full taxpayer-funded benefits, and fringe benefits including guaranteed pensions.”

That is what the city is doing, the team explained.

The case is pending in Travis County District Court.

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