Union Release Time Declared Unconstitutional in Arizona

by Alec Torres

Union release time, which allows public employees to be paid by taxpayers while working for their unions, was declared unconstitutional in Arizona on Wednesday, possibly setting the stage for similar decisions nationwide.

The Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute filed a complaint against the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association in 2011 arguing that the city spends millions a year paying for police officers to work full-time for the union instead of the city. Many times the police officers on release time are engaged in overtly political activities such as lobbying, union recruitment, and campaigning.

Maricopa County Superior Court judge Katherine Cooper ruled that release time violates Arizona’s gift laws, which stipulate that public funds cannot be used for private purposes.

“Basically, this is a classic gift-clause violation because it is a diversion of funds from one of the most important functions that government provides to a private organization to use for its own purposes,” Clint Bolick, an attorney of the Goldwater Institute, told me in December.

Judge Cooper agreed, saying that release time “does not serve a public purpose” and “diverts officers from performing police work.”

Dozens of states have a gift clause of some kind or another, and the Goldwater Institute hopes that this decision will spur challenges to release-time practices across the country.

“This decision is the first step in getting rid of an outrageous practice that places public resources at the disposal of special interests,” Bolick said in a press release on Wednesday. “Today’s ruling puts government unions everywhere on notice that taxpayers cannot be forced to bankroll union activities.”