The Arizona Supreme Court will have the final word on whether taxpayers can be forced to foot the bill for public sector union activities.
A local think tank sued the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association and the City of Phoenix in 2012 after discovering that taxpayers had paid millions of dollars to police officers who worked full time as union officials without performing any law enforcement duties. In August, the Arizona Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the union wrongfully received taxpayer dollars.
"Release time provisions do not require that officers in the full-time release positions perform any specific duties," the court ruled. "The City’s expenditure for the release time was grossly disproportionate to what it received in return, given the lack of obligation imposed on PLEA."
The Appeals Court affirmed a lower court ruling that the arrangement violated the Arizona Constitution’s prohibition on using taxpayer dollars to enrich private entities. The state’s Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on Monday.
The police union and its attorneys did not return requests for comment.
If the ruling is upheld it would be a boon for taxpayers, who paid union organizers $1.7 million in release time pay between 2010 and 2012. The union represents 2,150 of the police department’s 2,500 total beat cops below the rank of sergeant.
The Goldwater Institute, a free market think tank, challenged the practice after discovering a provision in the police union’s collectively-bargained contract with the city that mandated about 2,000 hours of release time. The legal team has changed since the Appeals Court ruling. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey appointed the think tank’s attorney, Clint Bolick, to the Supreme Court in January. He has recused himself from the case.
Jon Riches, who will represent the think tank before the Supreme Court, said in a release that the state constitution "protects taxpayers from financing purely private activities." He said that subsidized union representation benefits labor organizations without any sort of public benefit.
"Release time—a practice that is widespread throughout the state and country—violates that important protection," Riches said. "We are glad the Arizona Supreme Court has decided to hear this issue and we are confident the Court will reinforce the principle that private union activities should not be done at taxpayer expense."
Release time provisions have drawn scrutiny from other state and local governments. Lawmakers have attempted to crack down on the practice in five states, including traditional labor strongholds like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Courts in Idaho, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are hearing lawsuits similar to the one currently being litigated in Arizona.