Use of taxpayer funds should be reserved for purely public purposes, not the private benefit of an individual, corporation, or association. Yet, some Virginia public employee unions, which are officially private organizations, receive a direct subsidy from local governments in the form of release time, a practice that allows public employees to conduct union business during working hours without loss of pay.
Fortunately, a provision in Virginia’s constitution, known as the “Gift Clause,” bans government subsidies that primarily benefit private entities. Virginia’s constitution states:
Neither the credit of the Commonwealth nor of any county, city, town, or regional government shall be directly or indirectly, under any device or pretense whatsoever, granted to or in aid of any person, association, or corporation …
In a procedural memo, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) outlines approved release time activity. According to the memo, permissible release time activity includes attending “employee group meetings, meetings with the Board of Supervisors … participation on committees or task forces established to review employee-related issues.”
This amounts to paying unionized government employees to lobby government officials, which often conflicts with taxpayer interests and may force taxpayers to fund political activity they oppose. Each union receives 240 hours per year to meet with the Board of Supervisors and attend various committee meetings (there are 10 unions that receive the taxpayer funded subsidy).
FCPS employees are also permitted to attend union conventions or conferences on release time—each union is allotted another 240 hours per year for this purpose. These conferences may be purely political in purpose. There is no restriction on what kinds of conferences or conventions union employees may attend.
Preparing and assisting union members with a grievance is also a permissible release time activity. There is no limit on how much release time a union may use for this purpose.
All the above release time activity is purportedly approved and supervised by FCPS so that there is no disruption to operations arising from the government employee’s absence. Audits of release time are required periodically. Unfortunately, a Center on National Labor Policy report notes that the information gleaned from public record request documents and confidential conversations with a Fairfax County supervisor show that release time record-keeping is “lackadaisical” and “non-existing auditing prevent accurate assessment of costs.” In addition, the union is responsible for tracking and recording release time, which raises further questions about the transparency of the practice.
Overall, activity performed on release time serves the interests of unions. Unions, not taxpayers, should incur those costs, which FCPS has been paying for since 1986, despite the constitutional restriction on granting public aid to private entities.