Depending on who you talk to, a Christian Democrat initiative to grant fiscal breaks for families strikes a blow against tax rules that treat married couples unfairly – or it is a sinister ploy to prevent gay marriage. Voters will decide at the ballot box on February 28.
The question of so-called tax penalisation of marriage as compared to living together has been argued about for decades in Switzerland.
It goes back to 1984 and a decision of the Supreme Court that tax levied on a married couple is unconstitutional if it exceeds by 10% the amount they would have to pay if the couple just lived together without being married.
The discrepancy derives from the fact that in calculating tax for married couples their incomes are added up, while people living together are taxed individually.
This means that, due to the progressive nature of taxation, a dual-income couple pays higher tax if they are married than they would if they were just living together.
Following the 1984 decision, the country’s 26 cantons brought in adjustments – such as complete or partial income-splitting, different tax rates, deductions or reductions – to relieve the tax burden on spouses and also (more recently) on same-sex partners in a registered partnership.
As well as cantonal tax, however, Swiss taxpayers also have to pay federal tax, and all proposals to reform the system at that level have been unsuccessful.
Wording of the initiative
The initiative calls for the following addition to Art. 14 of the Swiss constitution on the right to marriage and the family:
“Marriage consists of long-term cohabitation, under the framework of law, between a man and a woman. For tax purposes, marriage is considered an economic union. It should not be penalised in comparison with other living arrangements, particularly as regards tax and social insurance.“
The only change that has happened in calculating direct federal tax has been the introduction of a deduction for spouses and an increased deduction for double incomes for married couples.
This has dealt with the problem of discrimination due to combined incomes of married couples and same-sex partners in registered partnerships for many of those affected.
Not for all, though: currently in Switzerland about 80,000 couples are still penalised for being married or in a registered partnership.
This is “an unconstitutional situation” intolerable to the centrist Christian Democrats, who in 2011 launched their initiative and secured the necessary number of signatures to trigger a nationwide vote.
The party, with its traditionally strong position in Catholic regions of the country, decided to go the direct-democracy route so as “to combat an absurd injustice, since our institutions are not doing it”, says parliamentarian Marco Romano, a member of the initiative committee.
The need for action is agreed by the government, which recommended approval of the initiative. Yet in parliament the proposal met opposition from all other major parties with the exception of the conservative right Swiss People’s Party.
Men and women only?
Strongly contested was the definition of marriage as "long-term cohabitation, under the provisions of law, between a man and a woman".
With this initiative, “the Christian Democrats really want to enshrine in the constitution a concept of marriage that is conservative, backward-looking, and which would exclude homosexuals”, says Liberal Green parliamentarian Kathrin Bertschy.
In fact, she says, “to eliminate tax discrimination against 80,000 couples, who make up 5% of all couples married or in a registered partnership, they want to use the constitution for a much broader kind of discrimination – they want to bolster the traditional Christian Democrat notion of marriage, as contrasted with all other living arrangements.”
This definition would have an effect far beyond just income tax and social insurance.
The objections are rejected by Romano, who recalls an earlier proposal to the Senate. “We had shown a willingness to compromise, offering to drop the definition of marriage and even mention the registered partnership explicitly too. But our offer was turned down. So this shows that the issue of discrimination against homosexuals is just being used as a pretext here,” he argues.
February 28 vote
The initiative is one of four issues to come to nationwide vote.
It was launched by the Christian Democratic Party in 2011 as part of a policy effort to boost the status of families. Its first proposal to exempt children’s and educational allowances from federal taxes was roundly defeated by voters in March 2015.
The other proposals to be decided on February 28, 2016, are a ban on speculation with foodstuffs and plans to build a second road tunnel through the Gotthard.
Also on the ballot sheet: An initiative to enforce the automatic deportation of convicted foreigners, thereby curbing the powers of parliament.
Bertschy insists, however, that the real point of the initiative is not to correct a discrepancy in the tax system.
By saying that marriage is an economic union, the proposed wording “excludes the best approach to eliminating disparity of tax treatment, namely taxing people as individuals. This would mean treating all equally”, she maintains.
“It should not be forgotten that currently the tax burden is heavier on people living together than it is on married couples,” Bertschy points out.
“We want to resolve the matter quickly, and in the simplest way possible. For example, by introducing a model of income-splitting like most of the cantons,” counters Romano.
“The idea of individual taxation is being promoted by some parties but it is not a reality. In general the cantons are very sceptical of this idea, because it would mean quite an additional administrative burden and a long cycle of legislation. If one day we were to have individual taxation, we could change the system then.”
Yet a constitutional change as proposed by the Christian Democrats requires a nationwide vote with a double majority (of overall population and cantons).
So the majority of politicians in both parliamentary chambers preferred to keep their options open. This argument is just an excuse, says Romano.
“For the sake of a political objective in the future, they want to stop a people’s initiative dealing with an existing reality that has been denounced as illegal for 30 years.”
Objections have also been raised for quite some time to the penalisation of married couples over social insurance entitlements.
The Christian Democratic initiative also aims, as one of its priorities, to abolish the limit on income from Old Age Pensions for married couples.
Currently, the sum of benefits received by the spouses may not exceed 150% of the highest rate of OAP benefit. About 86% of married couples at pensionable age thus get lower benefits than they would get if they were people living together.
Nevertheless, Bertschy points out that all the benefits should be taken into account to which spouses are entitled, and which people living together cannot get.
“Advantages for married couples exceed the disadvantages. The Federal Social Insurance Office has indicated that the positive balance is CHF800 million ($800.2 million) a year", says Bertschy.
If there were a desire to abolish the limit on incomes of married couples, the whole pension system would need to be reviewed. And the whole question of funding of pensions would arise too.
For their part, the Christian Democrats say they will remain determined to fight for the abolition of this limit because they regard it as an injustice.
Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee, swissinfo.ch