Behind an array of proposals to weaken unions is a small but influential conservative group that is partly responsible for moving Arizona’s needle to the right of the political spectrum.
The Goldwater Institute developed and drafted legislation that is now the focal point of what could be the biggest political fight at the state Capitol this year.
But now the group itself, not just its ideas, is under close scrutiny from opponents.
The institute is drawing criticisms as some question its clout at the state Capitol and others accuse it of flouting the state’s registration requirements for lobbyists.
The criticisms are likely to intensify as a series of anti-union proposals, which the institute helped craft, advance in the Legislature.
The Goldwater Institute conducted research that showed governments would save hundreds of millions of dollars if the state eliminated the public unions’ ability to bargain.
Of four measures that are advancing, this piece is the most threatening to the unions — and the one in which the Goldwater Institute was most heavily involved.
“The ban on state and local laws requiring public-sector collective bargaining — that concept we owned (and) we developed. It’s based on our research,” said Nick Dranias, the institute’s constitutional expert.
The institute was also a key player in crafting two other anti-union bills, although the ideas behind them are not new.
One proposal prohibits compensation for public employees while they’re doing union work.
A third component — and this legislation has two versions — would prohibit automatic salary deductions for union dues unless an employee expressly authorizes it each year.
The law already prohibits compensation for days used for “professional association activities” in employment contracts with teachers. The current proposal expands this to all public-sector unions.
Also, lawmakers last year adopted a ban on salary deductions for political purposes unless an employee expressly authorizes it each year.
But the law exempts public safety employees, such as firefighters, police and corrections officers, and a federal court blocked its implementation, reasoning that it imposed political speech burdens on some but not all unions.
“What we did to help there is we took a recent (U.S.) Supreme Court case that upheld a paycheck protection law and we modified last year’s law… so that it will (fall) squarely within the Supreme Court decision,” Dranias said.
Union representatives’ animus toward the institute was palpable when a panel of lawmakers approved the proposals earlier this month.
Roman Ulman, president of a retiree chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, sought to train the spotlight on the conservative think tank.
“I find it very ironic that one organization that is elected by nobody that represents no community is the one that is out here, giving information, which is wrong, and trying to destroy our economies and our public employees and our contracts,” he said. “How many times has the Goldwater Institute intimidated elected officials in order to get their way?”
Another union representative bristled at the group’s study showing public employees are getting significantly more per hour in salary compared to private employees.
Frank Piccioli, another local AFSCME leader, said the starting salary of 9-11 operators in Phoenix is $18 per hour.
“We save lives on a daily basis for $18 an hour,” he said. “I’d love to know the salary of the Goldwater Institute people, because I have a feeling it’s more than $18 an hour and I have a feeling they don’t save lives.”
Dranias, who helped draft the legislation to eliminate public unions’ collective bargaining ability, said the focus on his group, rather than on its proposals, is a diversion.
“Obviously, this is a tactic by the unions to shift the attention from the merits of the policy idea we have advanced, which could save $550 million a year if it were implemented,”
Dranias said. “This is a diversion tactic because they cannot defend the substance of the laws that currently give them a special privilege to negotiate in secret with our elected officials under the threat of litigation.”
The issue over registering as lobbyists isn’t new.
Michael Williams, who lobbies for the Arizona Police Association and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, complained that the institute is active at the Capitol — drafting proposals and pushing for their passage — yet many of its staffers who perform “lobbying” activities aren’t registered lobbyists.
“I think they are violating the spirit of the law,” Williams said.
Statutes require individuals who lobby on behalf of an organization or public entity to register as a lobbyist with the Secretary of State.
Actually, the Goldwater Institute had one registered lobbyist last year, but Arizona Capitol Times research showed that the staffer never testified before any House or Senate legislative committee last session.
A second employee registered as a lobbyist last month.
But other policy experts at the institute who often come down to the Legislature are still unregistered.
This was the subject of dispute between the group and the Secretary of State’s Office, which last year suggested that one lobbyist wasn’t enough.
In March, Amy Chan, elections director for the Secretary of State’s Office, sent the Goldwater Institute a letter urging it to register their analysts — who are testifying in legislative committees and contacting legislators — as lobbyists.
“The Goldwater Institute made 26 requests to speak before the 49th Legislature alone,”
Chan wrote. “The Ninth Special Session was called at the institute’s urging relating to putting the issue of the right to a secret ballot before the voters… to the extent that employees of the principal will be engaging in the conduct regulated by Arizona law as noted above, each of these people must be added to the principal’s registration.”
The institute’s president, Darcy Olsen, denies that her analysts lobby as defined under state law, citing a statutory exemption for people who provide technical information.
“We’re in compliance with the law, period,” she said. “What they’re doing is not lobbying.”
Under the law, individuals who answer or provide technical information to lobbyists and legislators and who perform a professional service by drafting measures or advising clients about the effect of proposed legislation are exempted from the registration requirements.
Also exempted are members of an association who are not the paid or designated lobbyist for the group.