In a major victory for taxpayers, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a first-in-the-nation Goldwater Institute law that implements much-needed reforms to release time—a corrupt practice that allows government employees to do private union business at taxpayers’ expense, instead of the jobs they were hired to do. Goldwater’s Release Time Reform Act addresses a vast and virtually unknown giveaway of taxpayer dollars that is all-too common in cities and states across America. As the Goldwater Institute uncovered in a series of investigative reports, public employees at the local, state, and federal level are “released” from their government responsibilities and instead are assigned to work for a private union—all while receiving full government pay, benefits, and retirement.
These government-funded activities include lobbying state and local governments and engaging in political activities, such as meeting with and advocating for the election or defeat of political candidates. As a result, taxpayers are paying the government to lobby itself, and paying government workers to advance narrow political interests—political interests with which many Arizonans may disagree.
Release time is a pervasive problem throughout Arizona. In Phoenix alone, government agencies allowed 67,511 hours of paid union release time, which cost taxpayers $3.7 million in 2020, according to a Goldwater investigative report. The report found that Phoenix had agreements with seven different unions representing various classes of workers, and that each of those contracts allowed for city-paid full-time release positions for two to six people. In addition, all but one of those unions were granted banks of paid release hours by the city ranging from 325 hours to 4,540 hours, not including the full-time release positions.
Fortunately, SB1166, sponsored by Senator Vince Leach, enacts a much overdue change that bans state and local governments from directing taxpayer funds to political and lobbying activities of private labor unions.
“Public funds should advance the public’s interest, not the political and lobbying activities of private labor unions,” said Goldwater Institute President and CEO Victor Riches. “This law will ensure that tax dollars cannot be used to pay government workers to lobby and engage in political activities for labor unions instead of working for the public.”
But union release time isn’t just a problem in Arizona. Goldwater’s 2020 report, which surveyed three jurisdictions in each state, revealed more than 400,000 annual hours of paid release time—and that only included data from 82 of 150 jurisdictions, as the rest generally admitted they do not track the hours and cost of release time, or said it would take extensive research to determine if the data exists. Moreover, the federal government allows up to 3.6 million hours of release time each year, adding up to a $177 million bill for taxpayers.
We thank Governor Ducey for signing this important reform, and we urge other states to follow Arizona’s lead. While there is still much work to be done to curb taxpayer spending abuses in Arizona and around the country, the enactment of SB166 is a significant first step.