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Florida Bill Shines Light on Union Subsidy

Taxpayer dollars should be used to benefit the general public, not special interest groups. Yet, the state of Florida doles out a massive subsidy to government unions on an annual basis. This subsidy is known as union release time and permits public employees to perform union business on the taxpayer dime.

Over a year ago, the Competitive Enterprise Institute sent public records requests to Miami-Dade County, City of Jacksonville, and City of Tampa to find out how many hours were spent on union business and the costs of release time. The findings were remarkable. In FY 2014, FY 2015, and FY 2016, Miami-Dade County employees spent nearly 100,000 hours on release time each fiscal year, at a cost to taxpayers of $3.2 million, $3.1 million, and $2.9 million, respectively. Moreover, in Miami-Dade County, some public employees never serve the public and spend 100 percent of their time on union business. In the past three fiscal years, Miami-Dade County spent over $600,000 per year on 100-percent release time employees. In Jacksonville and Tampa, the cost of release time amounted to several hundred thousand dollars annually.

A finding from the public records requests, which may be more alarming than the price tag of release time, is that none of the municipal governments tracked or recorded what activity these public employees performed on release time. As such, these local governments have demonstrated a complete lack of both transparency and accountability over the practice.

Fortunately, Florida House Representative Jayer Williamson has introduced HB 13, which would end the practice of release time from being negotiated in collective bargaining agreements going forward. In addition, today, the Florida House Oversight, Transparency, & Public Management Subcommittee held a hearing on the bill. The bill was reported out of committee favorably.

While, thankfully, the bill will move forward, I would like to address some of the criticisms of the bill that were made at the hearing.

One member of the committee sought to minimize the costs of release time. The member noted that the $9 million in release time costs to Miami-Dade County was a fraction of the county’s operating budget. This is undoubtedly true, but misses the forest for the trees. All tax dollars should be spent wisely and serve the general public. Release time simply subsidizes labor unions, special interest organizations, and provides zero benefit to the public. Further, it is likely fair to speculate that if $9 million in taxpayer funds were funneled to a conservative organization, which only promoted its own interests, the amount would not seem trivial to these Florida House members who oppose H.B. 13.

Another member stated that union representatives, which utilize release time, are actually volunteers. This is an absurd statement. How can release time—paying union representatives for union activities—be considered volunteer work? Simply, it cannot. By definition, a volunteer is “A person who freely [emphasis added] offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task.” Release time is not free and public employees who are paid to conduct union business cannot be defined as volunteers.

Last, a general talking point was put forth that union representation is important and workers need it. Whether this statement is true or not is beside the point. Government unions are private entities that are formed to protect the interests of their members, not the taxpayer. Further, labor unions collect considerable sums from their membership. And these dues should pay for union representation.

Union release time is a blatant misuse of taxpayer money, overtly directing taxpayer dollars and human resources to perform activities that only promote the unions’ interests. Hopefully, this bill will continue to move through the Legislature and Florida public employees will spend all their time serving the public rather than a special interest group.