Taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for political union activity

This article was originally published by the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Should taxpayers be required to subsidize the activities — including the political activities — of private labor organizations like the Service Employees International Union?

Unsuspecting Nevadans may be surprised to learn their hard-earned money is being taxed to do just that — advance the interests of government unions, including the SEIU among others, who continuously lobby for more public spending, higher tax burdens and larger government.

Through so-called “union leave” policies, agreed to by government officials and enshrined in union-negotiated labor contracts, government employees are paid their typical wages while performing duties on behalf of their workplace union. Taxpayer-funded union work can take the form of attending educational conferences, lobbying elected officials and preparing for collective-bargaining negotiations, but all such activities are undertaken specifically to advance the union’s political and financial goals — not those of taxpayers.

This means taxpayers across Nevada — who typically earn less than government employees — are effectively funding the efforts of labor activists whose interests diverge considerably from their own.

And it’s costing millions of public dollars.

A 2012 NPRI analysis found that collective bargaining agreements explicitly granted nearly 70,000 hours of paid union-leave time in Clark County alone. Other agreements simply authorized a “reasonable amount” of union leave, without defining that term or setting upper limits. In total, on-the-record costs to Clark County taxpayers approached $5 million that year.

Guided by that analysis and others, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers during the 2015 legislative session appropriately sought to minimize the taxpayer impact of union leave.

Senate Bill 241 (2015), however, though rooted in noble intentions, accomplished very little on that front. Instead of prohibiting the practice outright, it merely clarified that union-leave time is permissible if the amount of leave granted by the labor agreement “is offset by the value of concessions made by the employee organization” during negotiations.

The problem with that approach is unions had historically treated leave time as an asset of value during negotiations. Thus, rather than implementing real, taxpayer-friendly reform, SB241 merely codified the status quo.

Unsurprisingly, taxpayers in 2019 continue to be fleeced by leave time. Public records requests have revealed, for example, that Reno firefighters were granted nearly 2,500 hours of union leave at a public cost of $73,000 for the most recent fiscal year.

Grandiose amounts of leave time likely apply to Reno police officers and members of Sparks’ public-safety unions as well, but unfortunately there’s no way of knowing. According to the city clerks of both jurisdictions, union leave is neither specifically tracked nor recorded for those departments. Apparently, the fact that Washoe County residents are required to fund these special interests doesn’t entitle them to basic information regarding how their tax dollars are being utilized, and to what extent.

But one can imagine what those costs might be by referring again to Clark County, where the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department authorized more than 23,000 hours in total leave time for its union employees during Fiscal 2019, costing the public nearly $2 million.

Absent meaningful reform, taxpayers can expect to foot the bill for unions’ private activities in the years ahead — and likely at an accelerated rate, given the recent authorization of collective bargaining rights via Senate Bill 135 (2019) for Nevada’s 20,000-plus state-level workers.

But there is no public-policy justification for our elected officials to bargain away public funds for the benefit of politically connected special-interest groups. Taxpayers never should be expected to subsidize the efforts of organizations that lobby against our interests.

Our elected officials should affirm their loyalty to taxpayers — not organized labor — by outlawing publicly-subsidized union leave during the 2021 legislative session.