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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced legislation that would tax nonqualified stock options at vesting, rather than at exercise, for employees making at least $130,000 per year.

The big picture: Select employees at private companies would be taxed on monies that they hadn't yet banked.

The legislation is officially designed to "end tax advantages that allow CEOs to contribute unlimited amounts to special executive retirement plans," with proceeds going to "shore up multiemployer pension plans for 1.7 million workers." Startup employees are collateral damage, much like they would have been had similar language not been stripped from the 2017 tax bill.

What to know:

  • This only applies to employees making more than $130,000 per year and vesting more than $100,000 worth of stock per year.
  • That means it would be most likely affect employees at later-stage startups, where the strike prices are higher.
  • The proposal doesn't have a grandfather clause, but does include a nine-year transition period (i.e., this wouldn't apply until paying 2029 taxes).

Why it matters: Many of the affected employees, even though well-compensated, may be unable to afford the taxes.

  • Imagine you make $130,000 per year at a privately held company and have $200,000 worth of annual options vesting.
  • You obviously are required to pay regular taxes on your $130,000 income, but now also must pay taxes on $100,000 worth of stock options (again, the first $100k is excluded).
  • Or, put another way, you make $130,000 but are paying taxes on $230,000.
    • Not only might you not have the cash, but there's also the possibility that the stock will later go to zero or liquidate lower than your strike price — but the bill includes no claw-back mechanism. So you've now paid taxes on money you never saw.

Tax attorneys tell me that this legislation would likely result in companies shifting more from stock options to restricted stock units (RSUs), and also changing vesting periods to quarterly or yearly (because paying taxes monthly would be an administrative nightmare for both companies and employees).

  • But there are negative consequences to both: Companies typically provide fewer RSUs than options, because there's no strike price, and longer vesting periods could result in unhappy employees feeling compelled to stick around longer than they otherwise would.

Sources familiar with the legislation tell me that there could still be tweaks to the language, so don't be surprised if all of this gets addressed. Particularly given that a top Sanders campaign advisor is Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), whose district includes such Silicon Valley burgs as Cupertino and Sunnyvale.

The bottom line: This isn't about how much people pay in taxes. It's about when they pay it. It would make more sense for the timing to match the receipt.

Go deeper: Wall Street is scared of Elizabeth Warren

Go deeper

Updated 18 mins ago - Health

U.K. first nation to clear Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for mass rollout

A health care worker during the phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial by the Pfizer and BioNTech in Ankara, Turkey, in October. Photo: Dogukan Keskinkilic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The United Kingdom's government announced Wednesday it's approved Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine, which "will be made available across the U.K. from next week."

Why it matters: The U.K. has beaten the U.S. to become the first Western country to give emergency approval for a vaccine against a virus that's killed nearly 1.5 million people globally.

2 hours ago - World

NYT: Biden won't immediately remove U.S. tariffs on China

President-elect Joe Biden during an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Trump's 25% tariffs imposed on China under the phase one trade deal will remain in place at the start of the new administration, President-elect Biden said in an interview with the New York Times published early Wednesday.

Details: "I'm not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to the tariffs," Biden said. He plans to conduct a full review of the current U.S. policy on China and speak with key allies in Asia and Europe to "develop a coherent strategy," he said.

Trump threatens to veto Defense spending bill over social media shield

Photo: Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images

President Trump tweeted Tuesday a threat to veto a must-pass end-of-year $740 billion bill defense-spending authorization bill unless Congress repeals a federal law that protects social media sites from legal liability.

Why it matters: Trump's attempt to get Congress to end the tech industry protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is the latest escalation in his war on tech giants over what he and some other Republicans perceive as bias against conservatives.