Use of taxpayer funds should be reserved for purely public purposes, not the private benefit of an individual, corporation, or association. Yet, Texas 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, several provisions in the Texas constitution, known as “gift clauses,” ban government subsidies that primarily benefit private entities. Texas’ constitution states:
[T]he Legislature shall have no power to authorize any county, city, town or other political corporation or subdivision of the State to lend its credit or to grant public money or thing of value in aid of, or to any individual, association or corporation whatsoever.
It also stipulates: “The Legislature shall have no power to give or to lend, or to authorize the giving or lending, of the credit of the State in aid of, or to any person, association or corporation.”
Paid release time places no obligation on government employee unions to provide anything in return to the public in exchange for the subsidy. A number of Texas municipal agencies 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 activities, activities for which release time is actually used, and the amount of release time 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 leads 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, taxpayers are funding both sides of the contract negotiations without any real voice in matters that determine government employee pay and benefits, which greatly impact taxpayers and government services.
Overall, activity performed on release time serves the interests of unions. Unions, not taxpayers, should incur those costs. But despite the constitutional restriction on granting public aid to private entities, Texas municipal governments continue to provide release time to public employee unions.