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Union Subsidy Faces Judicial Scrutiny

“When you’re hired as a teacher, you should be teaching,” said Judge Jose L. Fuentes of the New Jersey Court of Appeals.

This statement is commonsense and uncontroversial. Unfortunately, commonsense is in short supply across the United States. A vast majority of states allow teachers, and other state and local employees, to perform union business instead of the job they were hired to do.

To remedy this wrong in the Garden State, the Goldwater Institute filed a lawsuit that challenges the practice of “release time,” which permits public employees to conduct a variety of union business on the taxpayer dime.

Specifically, the lawsuit challenges the release time provisions contained in the collective bargaining agreement between the Jersey City School District and the Jersey City Education Association, which forces taxpayers to pay the salaries of two full-time teachers who never spend any time in the classroom and spend all their time performing union business. This costs taxpayers $1.1 million over the life of the collective bargaining agreement.

Like in all instances of release time, it only benefits government unions and does not serve any public purpose. The Goldwater Institute argues that this type of taxpayer giveaway violates the New Jersey constitution.

A provision in the New Jersey constitution states “the credit of the State shall not be directly or indirectly loaned in any case.”  Nearly every state constitution contains such a provision known as a Gift Clause. In summary, the Gift Clause prohibits the government from giving away tax dollars if the expenditure does not serve a public purpose. It is painfully obvious that paying public employees to conduct the private business of a union violates the Gift Clause.

As reported by NJ.com, “A three-judge appellate panel seemed hostile on Wednesday to arguments that state statute permits Jersey City teacher union officials to be paid by taxpayers for their full-time union jobs.” At oral argument, all three judges questioned why the taxpayers should pay for teachers to perform union work.

New Jersey is not alone in questioning the value of release time. In Florida, state Rep. Jayer Williamson (R-Pace) introduced HB 13, which would end the practice of release time from being negotiated in collective bargaining agreements in the future.

Similar to New Jersey, many Florida government employees spend 100 percent of their time on union business rather than serving the public. For example, in Miami-Dade County, over a three year period, the county spent over $600,000 per year on 100-percent release time employees. The total cost of release time in Miami-Dade County is around $3 million per year.

Other Florida counties offer significant amounts of release time as well. In Jacksonville and Tampa, public employees spend tens of thousands of hours on release time every year.

Bottom-line: union release time is an unnecessary subsidy to government unions that serves the interests of unions and their members, not the public. The taxpayer does not receive a direct benefit or any discernable consideration in return for the cost.

It is a great development that courts and lawmakers may be waking up to the fact that release time is a wasteful subsidy that should be eliminated.