Tax Deductibility of the Pension Levy

Eilis Quinlan of ISME has been at it again. On the Last Word on Today FM this evening, she again said that it was a mistake to say the public sector pension levy was a pay cut. The key argument she produced as to why the reduction in net take home pay related to the levy was a pension contribution rather than a pay cut was that it was tax deductible, just like other pension contributions.

Let’s think about this for a second. Consider a worker on €50,000 facing a 20% marginal tax rate. Now the government introduces a pension levy that see her gross pay reduce by €3,000. The pension levy isn’t taxed, so the worker now has a taxable income of €47,000. Consider the alternative in which her pay is cut by €3,000. In this case, the worker also has taxable income of €47,000.

So, in either case, whether it’s a pay cut or a “tax deductible” pension contribution, the worker has the same level of taxable income—the pension levy may be tax deductible but the government also can’t tax salary that a worker hasn’t been paid.

In other words, from the point of view of the worker’s take-home pay, the pension levy is identical to a pay cut. Now, of course, there are reasons why various tax breaks exist to encourage people to make pension contributions: The government wants to encourage people to put additional money aside to build up their pension entitlements. But, of course, the payment of the “pension levy” doesn’t add a cent to public sector worker’s pension entitlements.

To recap, the fact that the pension levy was tax deductible doesn’t make it different from a pay cut. It makes it exactly like a pay cut. And the fact that it doesn’t add to pension entitlements means that it has all the features of a pay cut and none of the features of a pension contribution.

To be honest, I don’t see how it serves the interests of the hard-pressed small and medium-sized businesses of Ireland to have the Chairman of their representative organisation continually making provative and misleading statements that only serve to upset thousands of public sector workers that have experienced very significant losses in take-home pay.

Pre-emptive Strikes and Public Sector Pay

I’m almost reluctant to write about this topic because of the level of hysteria that it provokes. Still, we cannot deny that a national public sector strike is an important topic worthy of debate on this blog.

My overall reaction is that the debate about public sector pay is descending, perhaps predictably, into a damaging battle between vested interests. There is much to dislike on both sides of the debate.

Public Sector Pay Cuts

Speaking on today’s News at One, George Lee pointed to informal evidence from the Central Bank of average wage cuts in the private sector of 8%.  He then immediately noted that this raised the question of why there had been no wage cuts in the public sector.  (About 3.20 minutes in.)  George has a well-deserved reputation as an excellent economics reporter, perhaps the best of his kind on these islands, but this statement was unfair and unhelpful.   The pension levy is a wage cut.  It reduced the taxable income of public servants by an average of 7.5%, thus putting public sector workers exactly in line with the private sector figures that George is quoting.

As a public servant myself, I am conscious of the need to be careful when making statements about public sector pay.  However, the bottom line has to be this.  What is useful here is fair analysis of the full compensation package for public servants (including pension packages and the effect of levies) in comparison with the private sector—and the Irish economics profession has provided research of exactly this type.  What is not useful is analysis in which a pay cut is real if it happens in the private sector but not real if it happens in the public sector just because someone chooses to call it a levy.

I expect here that I will get a flood of comments linking the pension levy to the generosity of public sector pay packages.  But this would miss the point I’m making.  There is no link between this levy and public sector pensions.  The only real implication of the levy for public sector workers was to reduce their take-home pay.  Perhaps this step was needed (and perhaps more is needed) but let’s not pretend it didn’t happen.