Taxpayers expect their government to spend tax dollars only on activities that benefit the public. But in Missouri, public employers at nearly every level of government routinely use tax dollars to finance government unions, often including their political activities. This special interest subsidy is made possible by a practice known as “union release time,” which allows government union workers to be paid by taxpayers while attending union meetings, lobbying and negotiating contracts.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank, filed public records requests with several Missouri state agencies, city governments and school districts to determine the cost and amount of time public employees spend on union business during the workday. The results were startling. Many Missouri government employers do not even track or record the cost or the union activity performed on release time. That means that many government supervisors do not always know where their employees are or what they are doing-but still pay for them.
For example, the Grandview School District’s Custodian of Records responded to our records request, saying, “the District does not maintain or possess any records responsive to this request. I am not aware of which agency, if any, that maintains records responsive to your request.”
Other Missouri government employers exhibited an egregious lack of transparency over making public release time information available.
For instance, the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) tracks release time, but did everything in its power to keep the records closed to the public. Initially, the DOC concluded it did not have to disclose release time records under Missouri’s Sunshine Law. But upon learning that other Missouri public employers complied with our request, the DOC changed its tune-for a steep fee. The DOC general counsel said the agency’s only release time records were handwritten and that the estimated cost to fulfill CEI’s request would be $22,030 and require 1,941 hours to complete!
Many Missouri government entities could only partially complete the request, which asked for the amount of release time, cost, and activity performed.
For example, the Parkway School District produced release time data on two of its unions but not a third. From the information Parkway disclosed, the school district paid a portion of the Parkway National Education Association (PNEA) President’s salary. In the past three school years, the Parkway School District paid over $25,000 of the President’s salary, which was $87,300 in its lowest year during that period.
The Parkway school district also paid union employees to engage partisan political activity.
Two unions that represent Parkway School District employees, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and PNEA, used the bulk of release time to attend union-organized lobbying events. CWA members spent 31 release time days attending the union organized “Lobby Day, Jefferson City,” where they lobbied legislators to vote against right-to-work and paycheck protection laws. PNEA members spent release time taking part in the National Education Association “Capitol Action Day,” a part of the union’s comprehensive lobbying strategy.
The lack of transparency surrounding release time in Missouri makes it impossible to know the total cost of this subsidy and what activities public employees perform for their unions while being paid by taxpayers. What we do know is that release time is a subsidy to government unions that serves only union special interests and not a public purpose.
Missouri taxpayers need to ask their public officials how giving away their tax dollars to unions, especially when used to lobby elected officials, is an appropriate government function that serves the public good.
Originally posted at Watchdog.org.