Police unions’ lawsuit thumbs nose at taxpayers, constitution

Trey Kovacs discusses the lawsuit filed by the Las Vegas police unions that demand to preserve union release time. This release time relys on taxpayer dollars to grant union members time to participate in union business.

Three Las Vegas police unions recently sued the Metropolitan Police Department to preserve the practice known as union release time, whereby union members are allowed to lobby and conduct union business on the taxpayers' dime.

The lawsuit claims the newly passed Senate Bill 241, which prohibits union release time, violates the unions' First Amendment rights to free speech and equal protection under the 14th Amendment, because paying for release time means "they have less money to spend on their other advocacy and associational activities, and thus have to curtail such activities," according to the unions' complaint.

That's rich. If unions cannot extract tax dollars from the public for lobbying, they may not be able to lobby as aggressively, but that is not a legitimate reason to continue this subsidy. Freedom of speech does not create a right to subsidized speech. In fact, Nevada's Constitution says so.

It is unsurprising that the police unions are doing everything they can to retain their subsidy. They stand to lose a large amount of tax dollars. A Nevada Journal investigation found that police union contracts were some of the most lucrative. The Las Vegas Police Protective Association received "over one million tax dollars and 15,500 hours a year for union member to perform union work."

It's not just police unions. The City of North Las Vegas handed over $600,000 in taxpayer dollars for firefighters to perform union work, while the Clark County firefighters unions got more than $400,000 to conduct union activity.

Release time for public safety personnel is particularly egregious. Instead of fighting fires or protecting the public, firefighters and police officers are being paid to conduct union business.

And again, not only do government unions have no right to have taxpayers subsidize their speech, union release time should be considered unconstitutional. Nevada's constitution, like that of 47 states, contains a provision known as the Gift Clause, which prohibits use of public funds to benefit private parties.

There is precedent that union release time runs afoul of the Gift Clause. The Arizona Appeals Court recently held that release time violated the Arizona state constitution's Gift Clause. The Appeals Court decision stated: "[R]elease time provisions do not obligate PLEA [Phoenix Law Enforcement Association] to perform any specific duty or give anything in return for the release time, meaning the City receives no consideration … for its expenditure." The ruling was straightforward — police are paid to protect the public's safety, not work on union activities.

In the end, SB241 reaffirms the illegality of release time under Nevada's constitution. So while police unions believe that Nevada's law violates their federal rights, by accepting money to support their private interests, they are violating the state constitution and the public's right to not have their money diverted to private pockets.

That is why most state constitutions contain a Gift Clause. Public funds shouldn't support private organizations that provide nothing in return to the public.

Orinially published at the Las Vegas Review-Journal.