A Remedy for Taxpayer Giveaway to Unions

Time to Enforce Missouri Constitution’s Bar on Gifts to Private Parties

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Use of taxpayer funds should be reserved for purely public purposes, not the private benefit of an individual, corporation, or association. Yet, a number of Missouri public employee unions receive a direct subsidy from the state or local government in the form of release time, a practice that allows public employees to conduct union business during working hours without loss of pay.

Fortunately, several provisions in Missouri’s constitution, known as “gift clauses,” ban government subsidies that primarily benefit private entities. Missouri’s constitution states: “The general assembly shall have no power to grant public money to any private person, association or corporation,” with limited exceptions in instances of “public calamity” and old age assistance. It also bars local governments from granting “public money or thing of value to or in aid of any corporation, association or individual.”

Paid release time place no obligation on government unions to provide anything in return to the public in exchange for the subsidy. Missouri state agencies commonly grant release time to unions as part of collective bargaining agreements (CBA). In general, activity conducted on release time includes preparing and filing grievances, engaging in political activity, negotiating contracts, and attending union meetings and conferences. (Permitted activity or the amount of release time granted to government unions varies from CBA to CBA.)

Activities performed on release time by public employees often conflict with taxpayers’ interests, and may even force taxpayers to fund political activity they oppose. For example, public employees on release time often lobby elected officials to support specific legislation. Public employee unions generally support more government spending, which leaves to more government hiring and more potential union members.

Release time works against the public interest in another way, as a recent Goldwater Institute report shows. When release time is used to negotiate contracts, “a public employee, being paid public wages, is negotiating for private benefits against another public body. When release time employees use release time to negotiate over wages and benefits, taxpayers are literally funding both sides of the negotiation with no seat at the table themselves.”

Overall, activity performed on release time serves the interests of unions. Unions should incur those costs, not taxpayers. But despite the constitutional restriction on granting public aid to private entities, Missouri state agencies, city governments, and public schools continue to provide release time to public-employee unions.