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Goldwater to Defend Taxpayer Rights in Texas Supreme Court

December 15, 2023

The Texas Supreme Court announced today that it will review the Goldwater Institute’s lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of “release time”—a term that refers to government subsidies for public-sector labor unions. The announcement follows on the heels of the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision to hear a similar Goldwater lawsuitchallenging release time in February of next year.

The Texas case concerns a contract with a firefighter’s union in the city of Austin, in which the city pays the salaries of three full-time city employees who don’t actually work for the city at all, but who instead spend their time working for the firefighters union—a private organization that serves its own private interests. These employees aren’t assigned any work by the city, don’t report their job performance to the city, and can’t be fired by the city. In other words, although taxpayers pay a quarter of a million dollars per year, they don’t get anything for that money. Instead, they’re simply paying the salaries of people who actually work for someone else—that is, the union.

That’s not just absurd, it’s also unconstitutional. Texas’s Constitution includes a “Gift Clause” (actually several clauses) that forbids the government from subsidizing any private organization with public funds. Texas courts have made clear that this means the government cannot give money to a private entity unless it’s buying something—or, in legal terms, unless the expenditure “serves a public purpose” and the public gets “a clear benefit in return.”

“Release time” fails that test spectacularly. Not only do the “released” employees not do any kind of government job, but the city doesn’t even know what they do: it doesn’t keep records. Of course, during our lawsuit, we found out exactly what these employees do: they lobby the government, campaign for political candidates, attend union meetings—and even parties—and recruit members for the union. And they do it all on the taxpayers’ dime.

Release time is clearly a subsidy: the government is handing money to the union in order to support its activities, as opposed to paying it for any kind of public service. That’s why the Goldwater Institute has teamed up with our friends at the Texas Public Policy Foundation to challenge the constitutionality of release time under the state Constitution. A lower court ruled that release time is constitutional because the government is paying in order to “facilitate good labor relations”—but that can’t be the right answer, because if that were all the constitution required, the city could hand the union a million bucks in cash, on the theory that that would “improve labor relations.” Instead, as we argue in our brief, there must be meaningful limits: rules that ensure that government expenditures actually serve the public interest. That alone will ensure the accountability that the constitution was written to enforce.

The case is Borgelt v. Austin Firefighters Association, and the Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments on January 11. You can learn more about the case here.

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



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