OLYMPIA — The Senate Ways and Means Committee on Monday killed a proposal that would have penalized Washington farmers who hired foreign workers, passing instead a bill to encourage better housing for all farmworkers.

Since 1996, the state has exempted the builders of farmworker housing from paying sales tax on construction materials.

Senate Bill 5396 proposes to expand the tax break to housing developments in which at least half the units are occupied by farmworkers.

The bill would also allow owners of seasonal farmworker housing to rent units to non-farmworkers during the off-season and still claim the tax exemption.

As introduced by Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, the bill proposed eliminating the tax break if any beds were filled by workers on H-2A visas, who are usually from Mexico.

Farm groups said the bill would make building housing for U.S. farmworkers more expensive because H-2A workers aren’t segregated in separate housing.

Farm groups also said the proposal discriminated against workers based on their immigration status.

The Ways and Means Committee adopted a substitute measure sponsored by Moses Lake Sen. Judy Warnick, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate agriculture committee.

Warnick’s measure prohibits tax breaks for housing built “exclusively” for foreign workers.

Farm groups said their members can’t legally build housing exclusively for foreign workers anyway.

By law, farms must hire U.S. workers first and only then fill vacant positions — and beds — with foreign workers.

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