As taxpayers, we trust our locally elected officials to act as fiduciaries of our hard-earned dollars. However, it is well documented that the government frequently fritters away tax dollars on activity that serves no public purpose.
In a report released today, the Competitive Enterprise Institute highlights one example of such wasteful spending in Kentucky. Like nearly all states, local governments in the Bluegrass state allow public employees to perform business that exclusively benefits their union instead of regularly assigned civic duties. The practice is generally referred to as “union release time,” which is a taxpayer-funded subsidy that allows members of public employee unions to conduct union business during working hours without loss of pay.
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which ruled no public employee can be forced to pay union dues in order to keep a job, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, circulated a list of “essentials to a strong union contract without fair-share fees”—that is, compulsory union dues—ahead of the Janus decision. Included in the essentials is union release time.
Government unions generally view union release time as a way to offset financial losses that have come from the Janus decision. With forced union dues payments off the table, unions are seeking to force taxpayers to pick up the tab for union activity.
Public records from Louisville Metro Government show unions have successfully implemented this strategy. The cost and amount of hours of release time granted to public-sector unions are rising. For example, in fiscal year 2013, Louisville granted 3,724 hours of release time at a cost of $79,385. In subsequent years, the cost and hours of release time have increased significantly. In fiscal year 2018, release time cost Lousiville taxpayers $206,056 with public employees spending 9,542 hours on union business.
In another example, a recently ratified collective bargaining agreement, which spans from 2018 to 2023, between the Jefferson County Board of Education and Jefferson Country Teachers Association (JCTA) grants significantly more release time than in the past. In the previous union contract, the JCTA received 275 days of release time to be used to attend union meetings. In the new contract, the JCTA continues to receive the 275 days, but it also grants the president of the JCTA full-time leave “without the loss of salary, step increment, or Employer paid fringe benefits.” In addition, the vice president of the JCTA may use release time for one-half of each school day.
As concerning as the increase in cost and amount of release time, it appears neither the Louisville Metro Government nor the Jefferson County School District track or record union release time activities. This means the taxpayers have been subsidizing public employees to actively participate in private union efforts, but the taxpayers have no way of knowing just what they were doing, even if they submit public records requests.
Since the local Kentucky government bodies do not track and record release time activity, it is impossible to know exactly what activity these public employees conduct during this time. However, provisions in collective bargaining agreements provide some clues. For example, the Louisville contract between Metro Government and Louisville Corrections Fraternal Order of Police, release time is permitted for collective bargaining negotiations, preparing grievances, attend internal union meetings, and to “attend the Kentucky General Assembly when in session.”
If public employees are allowed to lobby the Kentucky General Assembly while paid by the taxpayer, it is imperative for such political activity to be transparent. Specifically, because labor unions are often at odds with public employers, taxpayers may well be enabling and supporting political activity that is opposed by the taxpayers themselves.
Kentucky labor unions are enjoying a wasteful government subsidy, and taxpayers have been covering the bill for far too long. Government employees have a responsibility to serve the public during work hours—if they want to perform activities outside the public’s business, they should be personally responsible for financing it and doing it on their own time.
In order to preserve taxpayer funds for public resources and services, policymakers must address the issue. Kentucky should eliminate release time activities. At second best, local governments should be required to track and record release time activity, ensuring that release time by public employees does not conflict with the public interest.
To learn about release time and reforms to eliminate the practice, read the full report.