Alert: A version of this bill was enacted as part of the Tax Cuts & Job Act, though with a five-year deferral period. See our blog commentary on the adopted legislation.
We wrote a blog commentary in July about the Empowering Employees Through Stock Ownership Act (HR 5719), which was subsequently approved by the House of Representatives, through a vote of 287 to 124. The bill is now in the Senate for consideration. In short, HR 5719 seeks to give employees in privately held companies extra time to pay taxes on the income they recognize at option exercise or RSU vesting. Instead of paying taxes at the exercise of nonqualified options or at the vesting of stock-settled RSUs, employees would be allowed to elect to defer the resulting income, and thus the taxes on that income, for up to seven years.
A staff member for Congressman Erik Paulsen (R–MN), the bill's leading sponsor in the House, told myStockOptions that "Rep. Paulsen is hopeful that the Senate will pass the legislation soon and that it will make its way to the President's desk sometime in the lame-duck session, either as a standalone bill or as part of a larger package." He added that Rep. Paulsen is not aware of any timetable for Senate consideration. When we checked with the office of Senator Mark Warner (D–VA), a leading sponsor of the bill in the Senate, his staff confirmed that the legislation had just been introduced. With Congress now in recess ahead of the general election on Nov. 8, it is very unlikely that anything will happen with the legislation until after the election. There is a chance that the bill will be adopted during the lame-duck session, a busy time when many laws with populist intentions tend to be hastily enacted while the outgoing president is still in office. At Congress.gov, you can follow the progress of the legislation in the House and the Senate.
Details Of The Proposed Law Could Unintentionally Discourage Its Effectiveness
In general, we support a beneficial tax-law change for equity awards at pre-IPO companies and favor broad-based stock plans. However, in the report on the bill from the House Ways & Means Committee (see pages 10–14, "Explanation of Provision"), we do see some aspects of the legislation that might somewhat dampen enthusiasm for the proposed tax-qualified grants. The tax deferral would not apply to Medicare, Social Security, or state taxes. It would not apply to early-exercise options. As we interpret it, the deferral election apparently would turn ISOs into NQSOs. Furthermore, clarifications are needed on various aspects of the proposed law. For example, the House report states that an "inclusion deferral election" would be required within 30 days of vesting but does not mention that for options the election would need to be 30 days from exercise (not vesting). Also, the numerous rules that companies would have to follow to grant what the bill calls "qualified stock" might make these awards appealing only to large pre-IPO companies and not to true early-stage startups.
Moreover, companies currently already have a way to structure pre-IPO RSU grants so they do not trigger taxes until there is a liquidity event. Without liquidity and the ability to trade their stock, employees who exercise options in pre-IPO companies face the risk of tying up their money in stock that could be worthless. The proposed tax-deferral feature includes a seven-year period before taxes are owed, but for some employees this may not be long enough to encourage them to exercise options and create the widespread employee ownership that the bill wants to promote.