OLYMPIA — Washington's dominant supplier of foreign farmworkers, Wafla, has asked Gov. Jay Inslee to veto expanded tax breaks for building or repairing farmworker housing, arguing the bill discriminates against H-2A visa holders.

To get the tax break, farmers can't house H-2A workers "exclusively." The exclusionary clause probably would have little practical effect because farms also house U.S. workers.

But Wafla executive director Dan Fazio said Wednesday the bill targets the H-2A program and breaks the state's anti-discrimination law.

"We are going to have a 'get H-2A bill' every session. This was the 'get H-2A bill' for this session," Fazio said.

The Legislature has passed Senate Bill 5396 and sent it to Inslee. Inslee's spokeswoman said Thursday the governor's staff is analyzing the bill and can't comment on whether Inslee will sign it.

"The governor’s office does not believe this bill discriminates against H-2A workers," she said in an email. "The bill leaves flexibility for housing to be used for H-2A and domestic workers alike, hence, is not discriminatory against one type of agriculture worker."  

Since 1996, to encourage better housing for farmworkers, the state has exempted labor and materials that go into the housing from sales taxes. Without controversy, SB 5396 will extend the tax break to community housing in which half the units are occupied by farmworkers.

Senate Democrats originally proposed denying the tax break to farmers who house a single H-2A worker. Democrats pointed to a study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee.

The study found 84% of the housing built since 1996 has been for H-2A workers. Since farmers are required by law to house foreign workers, the study questioned whether the tax break was a needed incentive.

Senate Republicans intervened and made the exclusionary clause largely symbolic. A farmer must house at least one non-H-2A worker within five years of claiming the tax break.

Still, when the bill came up for a vote in the House on April 9, House Democrats praised the exclusionary clause.

"This exemption will not apply to housing built exclusively for workers on H-2A visas, so I look forward to more housing units being built for domestic farmworkers and their families," said Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline.

House Republicans said the bill belied Democrats' concern for equity, minorities and farmworkers.

Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, said most H-2A visa holders are from Mexico and shouldn't be the target of discrimination.

"Really? This is what we're going to do?" Ybarra asked. "It doesn't make any sense after all I've heard in this House for this whole session."

The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House on a party-line vote, 57-41.

Washington law bars discriminating against people in real estate transactions based on immigration status. Fazio stressed that in a letter to Inslee asking for a veto.

"We're going to make the governor's office uncomfortable," Fazio said in an interview. "Our goal is we don't have a 'get H-2A bill' every session."

Fazio said he also was concerned that farmers could be forced to pay back taxes if they couldn't document having housed at least one worker who didn't have a H-2A visa.

"We don't keep records of people's immigration status," he said.

An estimated 25,000 foreign farmworkers with H-2A visas work in Washington each year, seeking wages higher than those available in their home countries.

Program critics say the influx holds down farmworker pay. Program supporters say farmers turn to a legal, regulated and expensive H-2A system because U.S. workers are in short supply.

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