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Goldwater Asks Texas Supreme Court to Protect Constitutional Rights of Lone Star Taxpayers

February 21, 2024

Goldwater Institute lawyers were in the Texas Supreme Court this morning to argue against the constitutionality of public sector labor union “release time,” which forces taxpayers to pay union organizers’ salaries and finance their activities.

Under the “release time” scheme, the government pays taxpayer money to a public sector union, which doesn’t use the money to do any public work, but instead uses it to engage in political lobbying and other union activities. In Austin, city officials have given a quarter-million taxpayer dollars per year to the city firefighter union—money that isn’t used to fight fires, but is instead used by union bosses to lobby the government to increase its size and scope.

As with a similar lawsuit in our home state—which we argued in the Arizona Supreme Court just days ago—the argument in our Texas case involves the state constitution’s prohibition on “gifts” of public funds to private recipients. While the government can spend money to purchase goods and services from private entities, it can’t just give taxpayer money to any private business or organization. But “release time” violates that rule because the union—a private organization—gets the public dollars and doesn’t provide any service to the government in exchange. Instead, it uses the money for its own purposes.

The Texas Constitution’s Gift Clause—actually, several clauses of that state’s constitution—was designed to prevent the government from subsidizing private undertakings, whether it be underwriting a business or funding an organization that government officials approve of. Thus whenever the government gives money to a private group to do some job, it must (as the Texas Supreme Court put it in one case) exercise “public control over the funds to ensure that the public purpose is accomplished and to protect the public’s investment.” Yet the Austin scheme falls short: city officials exercise no control over how this funding is spent, because the union officials who get the money aren’t even required to report their time. The city doesn’t supervise them, set their schedules, or direct their activities—and it can’t remove the head of the union from his role as union president. The result is that city taxpayers are forced to fund union lobbying and other private union activities.

In his argument this morning, Goldwater Vice President for Litigation Jon Riches told the justices that Austin’s subsidization of public employee unions fails the legal tests that courts use to determine whether government spending is constitutional. Although legal precedents require that any recipient of public money be legally required to spend that money in a way that serves the general public, the Austin scheme simply turns money over to the union without any meaningful strings attached. “The absence of obligations is so clear, the absence of control is so clear, and the predominant purpose serves the union’s purposes, not those of taxpaying public,” Riches said, that the city’s funding of unions falls outside the constitutional boundaries.

You can watch the oral argument here, and learn more about the case here.

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute.



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