The Arizona Supreme Court approved the use of taxpayer dollars to pay union organizers on Tuesday, saying that such arrangements serve a public purpose.
The state’s highest court ruled 3-2 that the city of Phoenix’s agreement to keep police officers on the payroll even after they have stopped performing law enforcement duties is constitutional. Residents led by the free market think tank Goldwater Institute sued the city and the police union over the arrangement, which is known as union release time. The plaintiffs argued that release time violates the state gift’s clause, which forbids the use of public subsidies for private activities that do not serve taxpayers.
The city’s collective bargaining agreement allowed representatives from the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association to amass $1.7 million in release time over a two-year period. The court majority reversed two lower court rulings and ruled that the arrangement served a public purpose because it furthered the interest of labor peace.
"A public purpose may be served by PLEA’s representational activities to the extent they promote improved labor relations and employment conditions for public safety officers," the majority said. "The provisions, even considered in isolation, also benefit the City insofar as they are a benefit offered to current or prospective employees and they can facilitate the resolution of grievances and other employee-employer issues."
PLEA president Ken Crane hailed the "landmark ruling," saying that it carried nation impact, because a ruling for the plaintiffs could have seen similar lawsuits "sweep across the nation."
"We’re extremely happy with the ruling. We think the court made the right decision," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "The way we’re doing business does not violate the gifts clause … This ruling resets the clock to back five years ago to before the lawsuit happened."
Crane said that union negotiators will meet with city officials on Wednesday to address changes. The union was allowed six full-time representatives under the agreement, but has operated with only four due to injunctions from lower courts. Crane said he will ask to restore those two additional officers. He also plans on asking the city to address its system of forcing representatives to draw from a pool of release hours during representational activities—a process that emerged in the wake of the lawsuit. He said that the nature of law enforcement complicates the use of the bankable hours since activities can arise spontaneously, as in the event of a shooting or internal affairs investigation.
"We shouldn’t have to be taking hours out of a bank of time. Those activities should be covered by the city," Crane said.
The dissent disputed the notion that the release time provisions served the taxpayer, saying "no public purpose is served by diverting officers from safeguarding the public to work almost unchecked for PLEA."
"The public benefit resulting from collective bargaining does not mean that the release time provisions agreed to through that process necessarily serve a public purpose," the dissent said. "To subsidize a labor organization under the guise of employee compensation violates the Gift Clause. That is what has occurred here. In light of the lack of any contractual assurance that PLEA release time actually serves a public purpose, this generous benefit cannot be considered anything other than a gift to PLEA."
The Goldwater Institute called the ruling a "missed opportunity" in a release and called on lawmakers in Arizona to eliminate release time from future contracts. Jon Riches, the group’s director of national litigation, said that the think tank will concentrate on legal challenges in other states, including its most recent challenge against the firefighters union in Austin, Texas.
"It is our hope that other state courts will vindicate the essential taxpayer protections that prevent the public from footing the bill for purely private activities," Riches said in a release.