Lawsuit Argues It’s Unconstitutional To Use Tax Money To Pay Union Officials

Luke Rosiak | Investigative Reporter

An activist group is demanding to know exactly how local governments paying salaries to full-time teachers’ union officials serves a public purpose when the only business that gets done is for the labor organization, not taxpayers.

If a lawsuit filed in state court in Jersey City, N.J. is successful, some teachers’ unions in the Garden State may no longer be able to bill taxpayers for that work. That’s because the state constitution prohibits government from giving taxpayer funds to private entities without a public purpose.

The new lawsuit is the latest example of a practice that is firmly ensconced among federal employees’ unions and is now being challenged with some success at the state and local government level. Some estimates put the cost of official time to the federal government at as much as $1 billion.

Under “release time,” teachers don’t teach, they instead perform unknown advocacy duties on a daily basis without having to dip into members’ dues.

The Goldwater Institute, a conservative nonprofit group, filed suit Wednesday, saying “the union is not required to account for their use of release time and the school district is not allowed to audit the use of release time.

“District officials and employees using release time are not required to properly account for how release time is used to the district, its board, or any other government official. The union president, who works full time for the union while drawing a salary and benefits from the school district, does not have to account for how he or she uses the time.”

Since the government doesn’t ask what such employees are doing, it can’t know whether it is serving a public purpose.

But release time or, as it is known in the federal sphere, “official time,” is a bargaining chip that unions routinely demand as part of contract negotiations — and lots of union time may encourage union officials to make bigger asks in the future, since they have more time for advocacy, leading to a perpetual growth in control.

Goldwater won a similar suit in Phoenix in 2011 ending the local police force’s use of the practice. Release time for police, for example, could mean that taxpayers were paying employees by the hour to hatch plans to prevent a cop who had shot an unarmed person from facing any consequences.

The non-profit said legislation to ban tax-funded release time has been introduced in Maine, Michigan, Nevada, and Washington State, and suits challenging it have been filed in Idaho, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas.

The New Jersey suit is brought by two citizens, Moshe Rozenblit and Qwom Kyu Rim, who say they are harmed because they pay local taxes.

“Plaintiffs seek to enforce the New Jersey Constitution’s Gift Clause and its requirement that government funds be spent only to advance truly public purposes rather than unjustly enriching favored private interests at the expense of the taxpaying public,” the lawsuit says.

Every dollar that agencies spend bankrolling unions’ efforts to fight them is a dollar that doesn’t go towards the agency’s mission. Goldwater says the Department of Veterans Affairs spends $40 million a year on official time, even as veterans have to wait months for medical appointments because there aren’t available staff, and the VA threatened to close hospitals because of a shortage of money.

The Department of Justice pays 4,000 people to work on union business instead of the agency’s mission–including helping judges who make $165,000 a year form a union, and even a priest.

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